Ask virtually anybody in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization about former senior defensive assistant Brian Flores’ impact on the team and they will rush to sing his praises. To a man, everybody certainly sounded disappointed that they lost him to a promotion after just one season.
But do any of them think the defense is suddenly going to fall apart without him? No. After all, he wasn’t the defensive coordinator. As Bob Labriola points out in today’s Asked and Answered installment, “Both Coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin were very involved in the improvement and the success the defense showed during the course of the 2022 season”.
Tomlin has had a significant, if not presiding hand in orchestrating the Steelers’ defense for the majority of his tenure in Pittsburgh. Even former defensive coordinator Keith Butler upon his retirement attested that Tomlin had begun calling the plays in the latter stages of Dick LeBeau’s time.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac also recently commented on the subject of Flores’ departure for the defensive coordinator job with the Minnesota Vikings. In an article in which he too said his loss won’t cripple the defense, he maintained that Austin, in his first season as coordinator, had more freedom and leeway than did Butler.
Labriola also points out that secondary coach Grady Brown is an “up-and-coming” member of the staff, perhaps one who will in time grow to have a larger influence on the defense. Maybe he will earn the title of senior defensive assistant, as Austin was prior to the 2022 season.
Brown just completed his second season with the team, and the first since Austin was promoted to defensive coordinator after working with the defensive backs. The Steelers led the NFL with 20 interceptions and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick had a career-high in that category during an All-Pro year.
Not to diminish the impact of Flores’ loss, but I believe he had a greater impact in the little details and day-to-day minutiae through his experience as a head coach than he did in actually dictating what the Steelers were doing on defense.
He did, perhaps, influence their more varied usage of sub-packages last season, for example, but that was also a byproduct of T.J. Watt’s injury. Chris Wormley gave him credit for improving the run defense, but they also had Larry Ogunjobi this year instead of…well, Wormley.
Flores’ loss was inevitable, of course, as he saw no room for growth in Pittsburgh. Austin wasn’t promoted to defensive coordinator by default, and Tomlin isn’t going anywhere. The Steelers surely hoped to get maybe another season out of him, but they’re not going to collapse like a house of cards after spending roughly 12 months as a member of the organization.