Lions' playoff window closing; losing Teryl Austin would slam it shut

Tuesday, 28 November 2017, 04:41:58 PM. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who is a head coaching candidate, will determine how long Lions' playoff window stays open this season and next.

The sky is falling!

Sorry, couldn’t resist having a little fun with Jim (Papa Coach) Caldwell after such a long Thanksgiving break. Missed you, too, Coach.

No, the sky isn’t falling, which is the way the Lions coach assured us Thursday that the media would paint his team’s 30-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. But if the sky isn’t falling, the window is certainly closing for the Lions’ playoff chances this season and possibly next season’s.

NFC teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks did the Lions no favors in the playoff race by winning Sunday and putting more distance between themselves and the Lions for a wild-card spot.

But the truly worrisome loss – or potential loss – came with news that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin might be leaving soon for Arizona State, where he’s reportedly a candidate for the head coaching job. If Austin doesn’t get the ASU job, he’s a good bet to land one of several NFL head coaching jobs sure be open after the season.

That’s great for Austin. He’s put in his time, he’s been a serious contender for NFL jobs the past three years, he’s worked wonders with his defense, he has the respect of his peers and players and he has developed a strong and likable executive presence during news conferences.

But losing Austin would decimate the Lions’ defense – likely for next season and possibly longer as the team would attempt to replace him. Austin would be a hard act to follow.

Austin brought the defense back from the doldrums. The defense ranked dead last in 2008 and 2009 and was mired in mediocrity until he arrived in 2014 and turned the unit into a growling monster, along with Ndamukong Suh’s help.

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin smiles before

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin smiles before a game against the Bills on Sept. 1, 2016. (Photo: Raj Mehta, USA TODAY Sports)

The defense hasn’t soared to those heights again, but Austin has done a commendable job with a unit that hasn’t had the luxury of the mega-watt signings that have gone to the offense. The defense ranks only 26th – a number skewed by the anomalous 52-38 loss to New Orleans – but you have to consider that it’s been hit pretty hard with the losses of Kerry Hyder, Haloti Ngata and now Tavon Wilson. And I’m pretty sure Ziggy Ansah is only being held together by duct tape and Spackle at this point.

The fact that Austin’s defense has remained opportunistic – it ranks tied for fifth in takeaways – and has kept the Lions close in games they probably shouldn’t have been in, is a credit to his game and personnel management. Darius Slay, who has become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks under Austin’s tutelage, said Austin’s scheme was just part of what has made him a great coach.

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin speaks

 (Photo: Paul Sancya Associated Press)

“What I can say is how he can put a player in his best (position) to be successful,” Slay said. “He’s really good at finding a way for that player to be successful.”

Austin is why the Lions have turned players like Slay and Glover Quin and Ansah into stars. I’m sure you don’t want to go back to the days of Kalimba Edwards and Jordon Dizon, do you?

 

The Lions are about to enter a decisive five-game stretch that features three road games and almost no margin for error. They’re going to have to rely on Austin’s defense to get it done. The old saying in football is that defense travels and it has definitely held true this season for the Lions, who are 4-1 on the road and have given up an average of 14.5 points in those wins.

The great news for the Lions is that four of their final five opponents have terrible offenses that rank 32nd (Cincinnati), 31st (Baltimore), 29th (Chicago) and 25th (Green Bay).

Oddly, Caldwell couldn’t be bothered Monday to say anything nice about Austin’s attributes that would make him a good head coach. Sorry, T.A., Caldwell had more pressing things to discuss, like giving us a long anecdote about his grandson showering. I’m not kidding.

Yes, Caldwell has praised Austin in the past for getting the most out of his personnel. You couldn’t say the same about Caldwell, who has already gone through one offensive coordinator and has seen an inconsistent offense under his second.

Maybe this final stretch of five games will tell us what we’ve suspected for a while; that the Lions’ largely anonymous defense, which doesn’t feature a $135-million player, is the strength of this team. And that the best head coach on the team isn’t even the head coach.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez. Download our free Lions Xtra app on your Apple and Android devices.

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