After another season that ended in disappointment, Pittsburgh Steelers fans were calling on the front office to clean the slate with their coaching staff and start over. The offense went from bad to worse under the direction of Matt Canada, while the defense often struggled against good competition.
Fans won't be getting their wish... at least, not all of it. Pittsburgh is currently in the hunt for a new offensive coordinator (and we can be happy that it's not going to be an internal hire). With Canada gone, some feared that interim OC Eddie Faulkner or interim offensive play-caller Mike Sullivan would become the team's next OC. Mike Tomlin confirmed that this will not be the case.
The defensive side of the ball is a different story. Recently, ESPN senior NFL reporter Jeremy Fowler confirmed that the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the process of finalizing a two-year contract extension with defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin.
The decision to bring Austin back was met with backlash by many Steelers fans hopeful for change. According to Team Rankings, Austin's defense ranked just 21st in yards allowed last season -- surrendering 343.6 yards per contest. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh ranked 22nd in yards per play allowed (5.0).
Steelers decision to keep Teryl Austin was expected
The decision to keep Teryl Austin around was exactly what we expected. Mike Tomlin is obviously a defensive-minded coach who has a hand in what happens on the defensive side of the football. Austin has been an understudy of Tomlin since joining the team in 2019.
Additionally, this team has gone from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler to Teryl Austin -- three consecutive strings of promoting a defensive coordinator from within. Pittsburgh also showed how much faith they had in Austin last year when they brought on Brian Flores to be an assistant defensive coach instead of the guy taking Austin's job.
Teryl Austin's contract extension could be a good move
Whether the reasoning behind keeping him was correct or not, the decision to keep Teryl Austin around could pay off for the Steelers. His players speak highly of him and they have a solid relationship with Austin at this point.
While Austin's 'bend but don't break' defense is a bit bland at times, it's important to remember that he dealt with a plethora of significant injuries on his side of the ball. Cameron Heyward missed the first half of the season with a pectoral injury, while linebackers Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander ended up on IR halfway through the year with season-ending injuries. Additionally, Minkah Fitzpatrick dealt with significant hamstring and knee issues that caused him to miss 7 games and exit the contest early in others.
Where it mattered most -- keeping points off the board -- the Steelers' defense excelled. Though competent offense could often find the weak link and march down the field on them, Pittsburgh held tough in the red zone. As a result, they surrendered just 19.7 points per game during the 2023 season -- good for 8th in the NFL.
Where Teryl Austin and Steelers defense must improve
While I am okay with the decision to hand Teryl Austin a contract extension, there are certainly some areas where the Pittsburgh Steelers must improve defensively. For starters, Austin and head coach Mike Tomlin need to do a better job at recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of their players.
It was easy to see that Keeanu Benton and Joey Porter Jr. were better than their counterparts, but it took far too long for them to see the field. Enough with the 'seniority rules' stuff. If the Steelers are serious about having an elite defense again, they need to let their best players see the field and send their biggest liabilities to the bench.
Another way that Austin must improve is when it comes to deploying a healthy rotation among pass rushers. As good and as important as T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are to the success of the team, playing them when they are completely gassed isn't going to allow them to go all out when they are on the field and it's only going to put more wear and tear on their bodies. The pass rush rotation was awful next year, and Austin needs to find a rotation that can keep everyone fresh.
Overall, any defensive coordinator candidate that Pittsburgh could have brought in would have had their shortcomings. The Steelers could do better than Teryl Austin, but they could also do worse. The defense was hardly the biggest issue with the team last year. Let's hope that a healthier unit in 2024 leads to more success.