Defensive Coordinator: What's the Hold Up?

Two weeks and two bowl games (one Senior, one Super) have passed and there hasn't been much of an effort made so far to replace Ron Meeks. Hot names usually come from successful teams, so Brad Keller takes a look at the super assistants that the Indianapolis Colts might have been waiting for a chance to talk to.

First and foremost, cross Clancy Pendergast and Dick LeBeau off this list. Pendergast's name has circulated around the league a few times when head coaching jobs have popped up.

He was retained by ownership when Dennis Green, the last coach for the Cardinals and the man that hired him, was let go.  He knows he doesn't have to worry about his job and doesn't need to make a lateral move.

LeBeau is 71, has been a coordinator, position coach, or player for the last 50 years, is on his second stint with the Steelers, and is working for a second year coach that just won a championship.  He's most likely retiring in Pittsburgh.

What the Colts need:

They need a younger coach that is a good teacher, works well with young players, and has experience in similar systems to what they have run in the past.  The defense has been built in the Dungy/Meeks mold and it would be extremely difficult for Indianapolis to rebuild their defense in one season, or even two.  Or, possibly three.

What the staffs in Arizona and Pittsburgh have to offer:

They certainly have some bright, young minds and some excellent teachers — particularly in Arizona, where they know how to deal with the offensive players taking up most of the cap space.  They have improved upon the talent at hand and brought out the potential inherent in many of their chargers.

What they do not have is assistants who have a lot of experience coaching players in the classic Cover 2 defense.  Although both teams have used some Cover 2 schemes on the backend of coverages — Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark showed how not to execute the two-deep zone on Larry Fitzgerald's second touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII — it certainly isn't the specialty of any coach on the staff.

Then again, if the Colts were looking for seasoned Cover 2 guys, they would have hired someone from their own staff.


John Mitchell, Steelers Defensive Line/Assistant Head Coach:

The assistant head coach title is a red flag from the start, considering that simply being a defensive coordinator might be seen as taking a step down.

Mitchell has worked with linemen and linebackers in both the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, but certainly has more experience in the latter, having spent the past 15 seasons in Pittsburgh — and the Steelers have deployed the 3-4 as their base defense for over 20 years.

He was a defensive coordinator for only one season, at LSU in 1990, before accepting a defensive line position with the Browns and their 4-3 Pro Bowl defensive tackles Rob Burnett and Michael Dean Perry.

He probably has too much of a home with the Steelers and, at this point in his career, should have more experience at the coordinator or head coach level.

Keith Butler, Steelers Linebackers Coach:

Butler is a linebackers guy, through and through, having played the position for 10 years with the Seahawks, coached the position from 1990-1997 and 1999-Present, with a year off to be the defensive coordinator at Arkansas State in 1998.

He is almost exclusively a 3-4 linebackers coach and, while he has done an admirable job working with the current group in Pittsburgh, he's also a bad fit for the personnel that the Colts have, as they would need to run more 4-3 base packages for the next few seasons.

And, at 51, he's another candidate on the wrong side of 50 that doesn't have much experience at the coordinator position.

Ray Horton, Steelers Defensive Backs Coach:

Horton is another former player and ten-year veteran.  He has experience as a player and a coach in Dick LeBeau's system, which has been 3-4 defenses for the most part, but also has experience as a coach in the Cover 2 (Detroit), a 4-3 pressure defense (Washington in the mid-90s), and has been a champion as both a player (Dallas in '92) and a coach (Pittsburgh in '08).

He has a depth of experience and, although he has been a specialist at his position both as a player and a coach, he is still early on enough in his career that he has room to grow and improve.

The only real issue is that he has bounced back and forth between being an assistant defensive backs coach and the head defensive backs coach and his career has not taken an upward trajectory.

Bill Davis, Cardinals Linebackers Coach:

Davis has primarily worked with linebackers in the 3-4 defense, but does have some experience working in the 4-3 with Carolina, Cleveland, Green Bay, and New York, and has specific experience transitioning teams from the 4-3 to the 3-4 — most recently in his past two seasons in Arizona and from 2002-2004 with Atlanta.

The Cardinals have a lot of moving parts along their front seven, with players that currently play linebacker but once played end, players that currently played end but now play linebacker, and players that can play both positions equally well, depending on the situation.

Davis was responsible for making that transition as smooth as possible for the players involved and also gave him experience working with both ends and linebackers.

He has plenty of experience and is certainly an accomplished coach, but one has to wonder why no one has promoted him yet.

Teryl Austin, Cardinals Defensive Backs Coach:

At almost 44 years old, he certainly fits the bill for the young side of things and has been instrumental in helping a talented but often underachieving Arizona secondary grow up.  The Cardinals have improved considerably in his two years with the team and his abilities as a coach, motivator, and teacher are not under question.

Before joining Arizona with Ken Whisenhunt prior to the 2007 season, he coached another fine young secondary that took shape before our eyes in Seattle from 2003-2006.  Before that, though, he spent 12 years in the collegiate ranks with Penn State, Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Michigan. However, he may be the man the Colts are looking at the closest, since Jim Caldwell was the one who hired him at Wake Forest, so he knows what kind of man and coach he would be getting.

He has experience and is younger than any coach on this list with the exception of Davis, who is six months younger.  However, he also has not held a position higher than defensive backs coach in his career, so no one can be sure how he would respond if given that opportunity.

Ron Aiken, Cardinals Defensive Line Coach:

No one can argue with the results that Aiken has produced in his two seasons in Arizona, but those two seasons represent the entirety of his experience at the NFL level.  At 53, Aiken is a little old to be making his first run at the league, though Jim Caldwell, Tom Moore, and LeBeau would like to have a word with anyone that thinks that coaching is only a young man's game.

However, unlike Caldwell coming into the head job at Indianapolis, Aiken does not have any previous head coaching experience at the college level.  LeBeau has head coaching experience at the NFL level and has been a coordinator for a number of years and Moore has extensive experience as a coordinator at both the college and pro levels.

Basically, hiring Aiken means that the Colts value a teacher in the coordinator role more than a system guy.  But, since the Colts haven't promoted someone internally already, they may very well be looking for someone that can teach Marcus Howard and Curtis Johnson to play with their hands off the ground than someone who knows every in and out of the Cover 2 zone.

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