Perpetually upbeat Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin runs his room with optimism and positive reinforcement and he'll be relying on more and more of it in the second half of a season that begins with a unit that just lost active pass rusher Carl Lawson for the season with a torn ACL when he became the second regular down linemen to suffer that fate.
It's not a lock that nickel linebackers Vontaze Burfict (hip) and Nick Vigil (knee) and slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard (shoulder) are going to be back for the first game after the bye on Nov. 11. But it is a cinch that a guy that sets NFL records like shelling peanuts in Saints quarterback Drew Brees is going to make his second start at PBS.
Austin is not only hanging his hat on veterans like left end Carlos Dunlap (two sacks on Sunday for a team-leading seven) and middle linebacker Preston Brown (seven tackles and an interception), he's got an intriguing band of emerging rookies that should help him more and more down the stretch.
After rookie safety Jessie Bates' 21-yard pick-six gave him three interceptions on the season, the second-rounder is chasing the club rookie record for picks with five that is owned by a range of folks starting with Lemar Parrish in 1970 and ending with Leon Hall in 2007. It's a rookie season that asterisks how successful Austin has been preaching turnovers. They've already got ten interceptions and 13 total takeaways, one fewer of each than last season.
Plus, third-rounder Sam Hubbard, the versatile defensive lineman, picked up his second sack. Fifth-rounder Darius Phillips, pressed into service in the slot, is winning a bunch of fans in the building after Sunday's effort of five tackles and a pass defensed.
After watching his guys give up the most yards in back-to-back games in club history, Austin is resolute because he's not just looking at the stat sheet or encyclopedias.
"I think at the end of the day, I looked at it like this," Austin said when he sat down with the media Monday. "We're five and three, right in the thick of it and we can only get better. We can only get better. That's how I think. I think sometimes when you're down on everything and you lose sight of the big picture and the big picture is, 'Hey can we win games and do we have room to improve?' I think we've won games and we still have to win more games and we have room to improve.
"I would much rather play great football from the bye week on than to have played eight weeks of great football and then all of a sudden we start drifting and going down. So that's what I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to our guys playing a lot better football in the second half."
It would be a brutal stretch for any defense. Half of the eight games have come against top seven offenses. Throw in the injuries to Lawson ("That's a big blow losing him because he's a big part of our plans moving forward.") and Vigil ("He runs with the big tight ends, he runs with the backs and he's all over the field in terms of running and tackling sideline to sideline because the game is spread out. That's really a big loss.") and they've hit them where the pass defense lives.
But what he believes must and can be avoided are the big bombs Tampa Bay unleashed. Two of them for 132 yards and two TDs. That's what made it close despite the Bengals' four picks and six sacks. Both plays (a 60-yarder to DeSean Jackson and a 72-yarder to Mike Evans) looked like miscommunication, but Austin believes his players know what to do and that it's just a matter of execution. It looked like cornerback William Jackson played it like there was going to be a safety over the top and safety Shawn Williams made an adjustment on Evans' route that didn't pan out.
"There's been miscommunications on some things, but I don't think that was our issue yesterday or even the last week. I don't think miscommunication was our issue. I think we just didn't do it well enough," Austin said. "I think that's the one thing we've got to do. We just have to get more consistent in doing what we're doing because the plays that we see it's not like they're new, it's not like they drop out of the sky and we've never seen them before. We've just got to be more consistent and play them better. That's really the charge for the off week is how we can get our guys to make sure that the play we've seen four or five times look exactly the same every time we play it."
Austin also said he didn't think he had to spend the bye week simplifying the playbook.
"I don't think it's a simplification," he said. "I think what we're doing, our guys understand. It's just in terms of how we executed each play, and that would be the thing. You may say 'focus' and 'concentration' but again I think it's the consistency of everybody has to see the play the same way."
Austin was miffed Jackson told the media he was going to be following DeSean Jackson all over the field. Under head coach Marvin Lewis the Bengals have rarely moved their cornerbacks from their sides, if at all. Except for the one play, Will held up with DeSean finishing the day with three catches for 68 yards.
"There was some good stuff in it. There was some not so good stuff in it. That's something that will be week to week, and hopefully the next time we do that our corners won't tell you guys," Austin said. "That's the thing, we can't have all the 'except for the one plays.' We have too many 'except for the one fers.' Now what you've got is you've got too many big plays out there. That's going to be our deal."
But more big picture from Austin. His guys have played FitzMagic, Andrew Luck, Big Ben, Matty Ice, Cam Newton and Patrick Mahomes. They've played the second most snaps in the league with 570. And they're 5-3 with the most wins in the AFC North at the break. And the turnovers are rolling.
"I'm really happy with our guys. Our guys fight their ass off. They battle," Austin said. "They find a way to win. At the end of the day, I look at it like this: there's usually about five or six plays that kind of change the game one way or the other. We're finding a way to make enough of those to win. And against some very good offenses. But we've got to be better. We know that."