Familiarity. Continuity. Pittsburgh Steelers promoted Teryl Austin from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator between the 2021 and 2022 seasons. After two years of coaching up Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton, and a year with others, including Tre Norwood, that familiarity was the selling point.
During Steelers OTAs and minicamp, the defensive backs embraced their former position coach as the new coordinator who puts the defensive game plan together with Mike Tomlin.
“Of course,” Maulet said from the Steelers locker room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex when I asked if Austin’s promotion gives DBs an advantage. “He’s going to tailor more things for us to be in the best positions.”
The biggest names of the new faces in the Steelers’ defensive backs are free agents Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee. But with Fitzpatrick, Edmunds, Miles Killebrew, Norwood, Witherspoon, Sutton, Maulet, Pierre and Justin Layne, all back in the fold, it’s a crew that’s familiar with each other.
“It’s more ownership now,” Maulet said. “Not a lot of new guys. Not a lot of new coaches. It’s time for us to take ownership of the secondary and play great this year.”
Austin’s role as defensive coordinator expands his focus on the defense to all its position groups. But it’s not something any of the defensive backs who were with the Steelers last year feel impedes their progress.
“It’s huge, and a plus for us in the DB room,” Norwood said of Austin’s new role. “We met with coach TA every day last year. He sees things from our perspective as DBs. With him as the DC, it’s a plus for us because he can not only teach us at a high level but work what we do more into what everyone else is doing. That’s going to help out a lot.”
Norwood appreciates Austin’s approach as a coach. He also saw Austin as a position coach who was well-versed in the defense last year when Keith Butler was defensive coordinator. Now, it’s just Austin being the person setting the tone for the entire defense.
“I think the biggest difference (in Austin) is his intensity,” Norwood continued. “We all knew last year, everybody said that TA knows the defense like the back of his hand. So, with him having the DC job, it’s nothing new to him, but you can tell he bring that intensity every day to practice and in the meeting rooms. It’s something that I’m looking forward to continuing to grow with.”
As an assistant to Austin last year who’s now promoted to the Steelers’ defensive backs coach, Grady Brown also sees continuity among the defensive backs with some advantages.
“We’re still a unit,” Brown said during minicamp. “You know, he’s a secondary coach by trade. So he remains a secondary centered coach but there is more responsibility on my shoulders. I just prepare the same way. Last year it was going and studying the offenses in the offseason and what’s trending. TA and I sat down and looked at what we could do to get better and what our deficiencies were.”
Now that Brown leads the Steelers defensive backs room, he will get more autonomy with the group’s preparation week-to-week.
“We checked what we did well and what mistakes we made last year that offenses didn’t capitalize on,” Brown continued. “My process didn’t change much in terms of offseason stuff. When the actual meeting time came, there’s more for me there with preparation and stuff like that. But TA is great. And he helps as much as he can.”
Brown is the day-to-day defensive backs coach and the Steelers’ cornerbacks and safeties recognize that. But there’s still an appreciation for their previous position coach being able to check in on their meetings to add his input to any of the minutia the group works on in a meeting.
“He does a great job of chiming in,” Norwood said of Austin. “Coach Grady does a great job as our primary DB coach to coach our room up. But that allows him to be more specific with us while coach TA oversees the whole defense and still be the DB guy he is.”
Some of that minutia still gets addressed by Austin. Even for Maulet, who is in the thick of a slot cornerback battle with Norwood and others, Austin takes the time to address specific parts of their game to improve.
“My eyes,” Maulet said of what Austin has told him to work on the most. “I have to make sure my eyes are in the right place so I can make the plays I’m supposed to make. From there, it will handle itself.”
Make no mistake, Austin still grasps the big picture for the Steelers defense, even more so now as its coordinator. If you talk to Edmunds about Austin, he’ll explain how Austin worked–and-works–with both Edmunds and Fitzpatrick every practice. When the first team defense is off the field, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick go right to Austin, and the three look at all the defensive adjustments that need to be made against opposing offenses.
“It’s that he’s sharing a lot more knowledge now,” Edmunds said of Austin in his new role. “He’s telling us everything now. It’s not just the corrections with the DBs. He watches the bigger picture more now. He sees the defensive line, the linebackers, everything. He did that a little bit last year, but now it’s an elevated level. So now, whenever we do get the chance to stand beside him we hear so much more communication. That helps us out.”
The Steelers made Fitzpatrick the highest paid safety in NFL history in June. Now with his position coach who both Fitzpatrick and Edmunds regularly talk to about defensive schematics at defensive coordinator, more of that “ownership” Maulet mentioned is plain to see.
T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and the Steelers’ pass rush have led the NFL in sacks for the past five consecutive seasons. That’s all but two of the seasons Butler was defensive coordinator where that group was the highlighted part of the defense.
Austin’s rise to defensive coordinator might not mean the Steelers’ pass rush lessens. But instead, his insight and connection with the Steelers’ defensive backs could be the key to increasing that group’s production to be on par with the Steelers’ pass rushers.
If that kind of chemistry is achieved, it would have the potential for a dominant stretch of years for Austin as the coordinator of the Steelers’ defense.