T.J. Watt has only ever known one defensive coordinator since being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers—and depending upon your interpretation of how their internal hierarchy works, that may or may not change this year.
Keith Butler, their nominal defensive coordinator over the past seven seasons, announced his retirement earlier this offseason, and the team recently named Teryl Austin as his successor. Austin, who has experience as defensive coordinator in other cities, has spent the past three seasons on the coaching staff as a senior defensive assistant. Watt shared his thoughts on that change with Mark Kaboly of The Athletic yesterday.
“It is nice to have a guy in-house that already knows all the personalities he’s dealing with and has a similar voice”, he said. “We have been with TA for a couple of years now, and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of guys individually, but also what we do good and what we don’t do good as a unit. I am excited to see what kind of spice and flair he can bring to the defense”.
Austin, a Pitt alum and a longtime defensive backs coach both collegiately and in the NFL, served as defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions from 2014-2017. He served a partial season in the same role with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2018 before he was fired. He has been with the Steelers since the following year.
Austin has never coached a top 10 defense before except in his first season in Detroit in 2014. In between seasons, they lost Ndamukong Suh, which Rashean Mathis missed most of the year and then retired. They also lost other key players, including DeAndre Levy due to injury, and others in free agency. In other words, he had a lot less talent to work with.
In Pittsburgh, however, he most likely will not be calling the plays. Head coach Mike Tomlin has held that role since the final years of Dick LeBeau’s tenure as defensive coordinator, as Butler confirmed on his way out the door, perhaps to Tomlin’s chagrin. But Watt has no concerns about what Austin brings to the table.
“When you are the defensive coordinator, you have your hand in every position group. It doesn’t matter what I have done or how many years I have been in the league, I am always trying to learn and grow my game”, he said. “If TA has something that he thinks I can grow at or get better at, then I am all ears for it. He talked to me about the coverage aspects of being a linebacker, making sure we all know if there are pass-offs and stuff like that”.
One thing the Steelers definitely need to make sure Austin has this year is a healthy defensive line. It appears that Tyson Alualu is coming back after missing almost all of last season. It is unknown whether or not Stephon Tuitt intends to play in 2022. They also have to figure out what’s happening in the secondary, with numerous players hitting free agency, and at inside linebacker, as well.