ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was the first coach Jim Caldwell added to his staff after landing the Lions’ job back in 2014. In each of the two off-seasons since, Detroit has faced the distinct possibility that Austin would depart, hired off as a head coach elsewhere.
Austin interviewed for four different jobs following the 2015 season, just as he did after a ’14 campaign that saw the Lions make the playoffs behind the league’s second-ranked defense. He has yet to receive his opportunity, though.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t,” says Lions safety Glover Quin. “Happy that he’s still here, obviously.”
There you have the consensus among Detroit defenders when it comes to their coordinator. On the one hand, they would love to see Austin rewarded for his 12 years as an NFL assistant and, more specifically, for what he’s done with the Lions. On the other, losing Austin would deliver a definite blow.
“A guy with his mentality, his mindset, his knowledge of the game ... everything he does is so different than anything I’ve ever seen before but it works,” says veteran safety Don Carey, who joined the Lions in 2011.
A Rooney Rule conversation probably deserves to be had here—Austin told the Detroit Free Press in June that of his four head-coaching interviews following the 2015 season (Cleveland, Miami, New York Giants and Tennessee), in just two did he feel like he had “a legitimate shot at the job.”
There was a falloff in the Lions’ defensive performance last year, as well, a tumble precipitated by Ndamukong Suh’s departure, DeAndre Levy’s injury issues and the offense’s abysmal early efforts. Austin still remained among the obvious candidates to land a head gig when the season ended, as his defense was every bit as instrumental as the resurgent offense in the Lions’ second-half push.
His return for the 2016 season is among the chief reasons Detroit believes it can lean on its defense if the Calvin Johnson-less offense needs time to find its footing.
“The continuity, the same scheme, the same system allows you to get better and better and better instead of having to learn a new scheme each year,” Quin says. “It’s surprising he hasn’t gotten a head coaching job, but the better we play defense the more everybody gets credit. Hopefully, one day he gets that shot.”
There was some thought last season that the Lions actually might provide Austin his chance. Then-offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was pinned as the scapegoat for the team’s wretched start. But had Jim Caldwell been sent packing as many believed possible, Austin would have been the clear frontrunner to inherit Caldwell’s job on an interim basis, as a trial of sorts for the 2016 season.
Caldwell survived, even after new GM Bob Quinn took over his post. And Caldwell’s chances of reaching the 2017 season as the Lions’ coach very much depends on how Austin’s defense fares. If all goes well, perhaps the third time will be the charm for Austin.
“I know a lot of teams are looking for a coach who can bring something new to the table,” says Carey, “and he really can do it.”
More news and notes
• Eric Ebron caught a pass from Matthew Stafford during last Thursday’s practice session and turned upfield, safety Rafael Bush on his heels. About 30 yards farther downfield, Ebron—likely in part due to the session being largely non-contact—stepped out of bounds, Bush still trying to chase him down. By that point Ebron was smiling, laughing even. “Burners!” he shouted back to Bush, a nod to his own footspeed.
Ebron showed why the Lions are excited about his progress again Saturday, during the team’s so-called “mock game” at Ford Field. With the first-team offense slumbering against a defense comprised of second- and third-teamers, Stafford looked Ebron’s way for a spark. Following a short reception on an out route, Ebron twice broke free up the seam for significant gains, the biggest a 30-yarder against rookie safety Miles Killebrew.
The positive momentum was halted when Ebron had to be carted off the field, having suffered an apparent Achilles injury. He was blocking for a run play off the right side of Detroit’s line, when a pile of bodies sent him tumbling to the turf. Ebron grabbed for his leg, then turned over and slammed the turf with his hand.
“It’s devastating,” fellow TE Matthew Mulligan said. “Anytime you see one of your guys go down, especially when it’s a guy you’re so close with … it’s awful and you feel for him because you know how much work guys put in. It’s not just now, it’s all year round.”
The Lions may have dodged a bullet—the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported later Saturday that the injury “could be minor.” They’ll count their blessings if so. Ebron is primed for a huge season, and this offense badly needs him to follow through on that promise.
• Nothing is set in stone in early August, obviously, but if the Lions’ season were to start today odds are the defense would line up with Kyle Van Noy, Tahir Whitehead and Jon Bostic as its starting linebackers. That’s because Levy (active/non-football injury) remains sidelined, with the regular season mere weeks away.
The Lions continue to insist Levy will be fine, but his absence for 15 games last season amplifies the lingering concern. So, too, does the depth chart behind him. Van Noy has been underachieved mightily since Detroit drafted him in 2014; Bostic, a 2013 pick, played his way out of Chicago, which traded him to New England last season.
The only thing close to a known quantity is Whitehead, whom the Lions re-signed this off-season. He was victimized in coverage multiple times during Saturday’s scrimmage, with RB George Winn—a player on the roster bubble himself—turning him inside out for a touchdown out of the flat.
• Gotta love Martha Firestone Ford. Detroit’s 90-year-old team owner exited Thursday’s scorcher of a practice a little early—as the heat index pushed triple digits, a team official rushed a bottle of water out to Ford, who then made her way inside the Lions’ facility. But Ford reportedly was back out there Friday and then attended Saturday’s mock game at Ford Field. She stuck it out for the entirety of the latter, which lasted upwards of three hours as part of the team’s “Family Day.”
• The backup quarterback competition appears close to being over even before the Lions’ preseason opener. Longtime NFL veteran Dan Orlovsky displayed total control of the second-string offense during Saturday’s “game,” at times picking apart the first-team defense with the help of impressive rookie wide receiver Jay Lee. Rookie Jake Rudock saw a handful of snaps late, only after Orlovsky and Stafford each had several drives under his belt.
Five Questions with Anquan Boldin
Q1: You have a background with Jim Caldwell, but what was it about the rest of this team and this offense in particular that drew you to Detroit?
A: For me, I had a chance to look at the last eight games of the season when [offensive coordinator] Jim Bob [Cooter] took over and saw the potential that was there. I like the direction that the team is headed, they played great football down the stretch. I just feel like it’s one of those teams that’s up and coming, a team that has a chance, a team not a lot of people are paying attention to. I like the way things are going. You don’t have a lot of guys—not any guys—that are worried about stats. It’s a group of guys that wants to win.
Q2: Even last season with Calvin Johnson still around, the passing game started to have more success stretching the field horizontally than it did connecting vertically. Can an offense that lives mostly sideline to sideline be just as dangerous as one that has a couple of true deep threats?
A: I think so. If you look at the weapons we have on offense. Myself, look at Marvin [Jones], Golden Tate. Look at our tight ends, Theo [Riddick] coming out of the backfield with 80 receptions last year. It’s scary. As a defense you have to pick your poison. Who do you double team, who do you not double team, who do you match up one on one with? There’s a lot of guys who can create problems across the board. Matt has a lot of options to go to. If you watch film of him, he’s not just locked in on one guy, it’s just whoever’s open. So that’s even more motivation for guys to get open, because if you’re open he’s going to find you.
Q3: You’ve only been working Stafford for a few days, but what have you seen in his approach that you think will work well with your game?
A: For one, he has a great control of this offense. I think he understands exactly what they’re asking of him. He goes through all of his hots, he knows if he has to change protections. And he knows how to find open guys. He can read coverages, see what the defense is trying to do to him and react accordingly. Plus, he can make any throw on the field. He can really spin it.
Q4: You’ve had just one season in your career with fewer than 100 targets. Given all those options Stafford has in the passing game, do you expect you’ll still see that volume of looks again this year?
A: When my number is called, my job is to come through. That’s the way I’ve always felt, that’s just the way I approach the game. When you come through for the quarterback, he’ll come back to you. … At this point in my career it’s not about numbers. I’ve put up numbers my entire career, so for me it’s not about that.
Q5: Speaking on your long career, is this the last stop?
A: Hopefully. I just take it one year at a time. I evaluate things after the season is done, so after this season we’ll see.
Biggest Turnaround: Alex Carter, CB
That is, the Lions are hoping Carter earns this designation. The No. 80 pick of the 2015 draft, Carter missed his entire rookie season due to a high-ankle sprain that would not heal. Now, after veteran Rashean Mathis retired, Carter finds himself fighting for the starting job opposite Darius Slay as the preseason begins.
“He’s catching up, little by little on a daily basis,” Caldwell says. “He’s getting a little bit more comfortable and you can kind of see flashes of his ability.”
Flashes, but not nearly enough consistency yet.
Drawing some buzz: The defensive tackles
Quinn soon may face some very difficult roster decisions at the DT spot. Tyrunn Walker and Haloti Ngata are obvious inclusions. They lined up with the first-team defense during Saturday’s scrimmage—Walker, as has been the case for much of camp, consistently overwhelmed his O-line competition, including one play that saw him power right through rookie center Graham Glasgow.
Rookie A’Shawn Robinson, despite drawing reps with the second and third units, also figures to make the cut. Beyond that? Stefan Charles and Khyri Thornton both have made strong cases to remain on the roster, thus inching youngsters Caraun Reid (2014 pick, 12 starts in ’15) and Gabe Wright (2015 pick) closer to the chopping block.
This is the enviable “good problem to have,” but the Lions will have to part ways with at least one talented tackle eventually.