'Cracks in the foundation': What led to Bengals' defensive shakeup

Stephen A. loses it talking about Lewis, Bengals (1:48)

Stephen A. Smith goes off on the Bengals for continuing to keep Marvin Lewis as head coach after defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was fired. (1:48)

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis clearly thought something had to give when he looked around at the players on the sideline during the Cincinnati Bengals' 51-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Lewis said he didn't like their demeanor, so much so that he took the unusual step of addressing them directly during the game. Lewis had delegated such things to his assistants in the past so he could pay attention to what was happening on the field.

Not anymore.

"That was kind of like the first time of him ever really coming over to the defense and bringing us all together," rookie Jessie Bates said. "It was just like any other coaching meeting in between series, just making sure that we were all staying together and letting us know that the game isn't over with."

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was fired by the next morning, and it appears Lewis, who will now take on the role of defensive coordinator as well, had his decision made that night. He admitted he called former defensive coordinator and now Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who also calls the defensive plays for his team, for advice. Zimmer, he said, was already asleep at the time.

Austin didn't even make it through one season with the Bengals, a highly unusual move for a team that is reluctant to make sweeping changes and had never fired a coordinator during the season before they let Ken Zampese go after just two games last year. Austin leaves behind a defense that ranks last in the NFL since Week 6 in points allowed per game (39.5), first downs per game (30.3) and third-down conversion rate (61 percent). They've also lost three of their past four games and rank last overall this season in total defense and passing defense.

How did it go so wrong?

Things started going downhill in Week 6 against the Steelers. The Bengals had just driven down the field to go ahead by one point with only 1 minute, 18 seconds left. The Bengals allowed the Steelers to convert on third-and-2. They then got them to third-and-10 at the Steelers 41, still out of field goal range, and Dre Kirkpatrick was called for holding.

The Steelers were given new life. Two plays later, Austin called an all-out blitz, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger immediately found Antonio Brown, who ran for 31 yards with nobody to cover him. The Steelers won, and as the Bengals walked back through the tunnel, Vontaze Burfict was heard on tape asking why the coaches called something they'd never even practiced.

Things went from bad to worse. They got blown out against the Chiefs, they scraped by the Buccaneers by the skin of their teeth after blowing a three-touchdown lead, and they couldn't do a thing to stop the Saints.

"It's very difficult," Lewis said. "The easiest thing to do is to change somebody, and the hardest thing to do is to try to help that person get better. I’ve tried very hard to be a resource, but it wasn’t fitting right.”

A source told Albert Breer of the MMQB that Austin wasn't getting his message through anymore.

Bengals analyst Dave Lapham, a former Bengals offensive lineman who has a good pulse on the team, echoed the same sentiments during his radio show on Monday.

"I think it started there during that Pittsburgh loss and the zero coverage call and Antonio Brown making a play on it that won the football game," Lapham said. "Vontaze Burfict, who's exiting the field and knows the camera's on him, he's saying 'What! Why would he make that call? We never even worked on zero coverage. Just throwing Austin under the bus and intentionally doing so. And then followed up by Carlos Dunlap in the locker room saying, 'This is insanity. We're doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

"So now you're seeing cracks in the foundation. I do think that was the start of it and it just started snowballing."

Players seemed to generally agree that they liked Austin as a person. However, somewhere along the way, it seemed clear they stopped believing in him as a coach. The numbers had gotten staggeringly bad since that Pittsburgh game. Not only did the Bengals become the first team to give up 500 yards in three straight games in the Super Bowl era, but they're on pace to blow past the Saints record of 7,042 yards allowed in a season.

It's no wonder they needed to stop the bleeding.

"We're not going to say it's our fault for him getting fired, but we're not playing well and something had to change and unfortunately he had to get fired," Bates said.

During the past few weeks, players discussed trying to do too much. They talked about communicating. They mentioned "gray areas" more than once after the loss to the Saints. That all points to the message getting lost somewhere, leading to confusion about assignments.

"There should be no gray now. It’s clear what we want to do here and we’re trying to do it now," Dunlap said.

There were also signs that perhaps something had become stale in the building. On the night of the Saints loss, safety Shawn Williams hinted that some might be clocking out mentally at 5 p.m.

"This is a business. When you go home after 5 or whatever time, it's still got to be football. It just can't be it after you leave the building. There's enough gray, and better teams coming that we've got to play and you've got to make sure that you're not putting yourself in a worse position than you're already in," he said. "So, you've got to fix all the gray and make sure we know exactly what to do and know how they're gonna attack us."

That might be one of the reasons Lewis felt he had to get everybody's attention right now.

"I just felt like we had to rock their world and shake things up. It’s important where we are. We have to get this done, and it’s our chance to do it right now," Lewis said.

Added Dunlap: "I just know that all of us should be putting a sense of urgency on right now. That's why they made that move. I don't know what the issue was. I don't know what the issue is. But that lets me know that we want to fix it now. I can't say that I love the move, but I do like the sense of urgency. I don't know how to explain it."

Now it falls squarely on the shoulders of Lewis and the players to right the ship. If they can't, it would indicate the problem is bigger than Austin. If they can, then time will prove that the move was the correct one.

"I don't know. I've never been under the reins of Marvin Lewis as a defensive coordinator, so it's going to be pretty interesting. We're going to see," Dunlap said.