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What a difference third downs make for Teryl Austin, Mike Zimmer

NFL games, careers and lives change on third downs.

Just ask Teryl Austin.

The 53-year-old now-former Bengals defensive coordinator was fired Monday in Cincinnati. A day earlier, in a 51-14 home loss to the Saints, Austin’s defenders were bystanders as Drew Brees scored on every possession but the one he knelt down on — in Bengals territory — to end the game.

The Saints converted 7 of 12 third downs. That dropped Austin’s third-down defense to dead last in the league at 56.55 percent.

Austin now has been fired twice in 11 months. And both times, the team that fired him had a winning record.

As Lions defensive coordinator, he was let go along with Jim Caldwell when Detroit went 9-7 last year. The Bengals dropped to 5-4 with Sunday’s loss.

The Bengals hadn’t changed their defense since Mike Zimmer seized control of it back in 2008. When Zimmer left to become Vikings coach in 2014, Paul Guenther was promoted to defensive coordinator. He kept Zimmer’s defense intact until leaving to join Jon Gruden in Oakland before this season.

Austin came in saying the defense he’d run would be his own. So he made some changes. Nine games later, head coach Marvin Lewis had seen enough when Austin’s defense set an NFL record by becoming the first to give up 500 yards in three straight games.

Lewis will serve as his own defensive coordinator and presumably will go back to the system he and Zimmer used.

Meanwhile, Zimmer’s defense in Minnesota sits atop the league on third down at 25.74 percent.

How will Mack, Bears defense test the Vikings? Take a look

When asked recently if anything about the NFC North has jumped out at him, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said enough with what he didn’t say in his response.

“I thought Chicago would be good on defense,” Zimmer said earlier this month. “I haven’t watched them on offense at all, but I think with them adding [Khalil] Mack — it’s helped them.”

The Bears offense, led by a second-year Mitchell Trubisky who struggled mightily twice against the Vikings last season, has been the surprise of the division while averaging nearly 30 points in a 6-3 start.

When the Vikings (11th, 22.7ppg) come to town on Sunday night, first-year head coach Matt Nagy’s surging offense will face its toughest scoring defense since Week 2 vs. the Seahawks (9th, 21.3ppg).

What’s certain is the Bears defense has regained respect as one of the NFL’s best. Chicago boasts a potent mixture of front-seven strength, allowing a league-best 3.6 yards per carry, and a back end with the NFL’s most interceptions (16) entering Week 11.

Headlining is edge rusher Khalil Mack, who leads the Bears with seven sacks despite playing in just seven games this season. Mack returned last week from an ankle injury and looked healthy with two of the Bears’ six sacks on Matthew Stafford.

Below we’ll break down relevant elements from the Vikings offense against the Lions and how they match up with the Bears defense.

1. Pressure report: Quarterback Kirk Cousins is coming off his cleanest game for the Vikings — literally. Cousins was hit just once, when Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah quickly beat guard Danny Isidora for a sack in the red zone, forcing a Vikings field goal. The return of left tackle Riley Reiff was a welcomed one, considering he’ll have at least one game under his belt back from a foot injury before facing a potent Bears pass rush with 30 sacks, one short of the NFL lead.

The line’s biggest issues came in run blocking, which won’t get much easier on Sunday night. The Vikings could use Tom Compton’s return from a knee injury, even if he’s just a slight improvement over Isidora as a run blocker. Isidora was beaten on a couple stuffed runs, including a no gain and a 1-yard run by Dalvin Cook.

2. Mack, the two-time All-Pro, will be a behemoth challenge for both Reiff and Brian O’Neill. The Bears pick spots for Mack, who has lined up more vs. right tackle (64.8%) this season than against left tackle (35.2%), according to Pro Football Focus. But his alignment differs by week. Against the Lions on Sunday, Mack spent seven of every 10 snaps against left tackle Taylor Decker while racking up two sacks.

Below, Mack (#52) dusts the weak chip by the Lions tight end and runs over Decker for the sack.

But the Vikings’ challenges continue along the Bears’ front. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman is one of the league’s best run stoppers. The Vikings just saw one of them — Lions DT Damon Harrison — and he beat Isidora and center Pat Elflein en route to a team-high seven tackles (one for a loss). Right guard Mike Remmers was the most consistent interior linemen last week, and the Vikings need him to continue his solid play in Chicago.

The Bears bring some odd fronts, such as this wide 6-man alignment against a Lions third down on Sunday. Leonard Floyd, a former first-round pick, is outside the slot receiver to the right, but still gets the pressure to force a Stafford incompletion. The Vikings will need to be mindful of these kinds of twists in the pass rush.

3. Anatomy of a play: Dalvin Cook’s 70-yard run was a nice reminder of his home-run ability, but the Vikings still search for rushing efficiency. Take out Cook’s big run, and Latavius Murray’s 1-yard touchdown, and the duo averaged just 2.7 yards on the other 18 carries — gaining only one first down.

Entering the bye week, the Vikings emphasized running the ball in the red zone, according to Zimmer. This 6-yard gain below is a good example of how John DeFilippo can help his blockers by spreading out in the shotgun and handing off to Murray.

Watch Remmers (#74) and O’Neill (#75) on the right side. They combo block Lions defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, then O’Neill gets to linebacker Jarrad Davis while drawing an illegal hands to the face penalty on Davis. This sets up Murray’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Since the Bears’ front seven is so stout, coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t need to add an eighth defender against the Lions’ two-TE formation on this 1st-and-10 play below.

It’s because of plays like this by Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who embarrasses Lions right tackle Rick Wagner leading to the no gain by LaGarrette Blount.

4. Bears slot corner Bryce Callahan has shown why the Vikings were interested in him as a restricted free agent last spring. Callahan was a headache for Stafford, who was intercepted throwing to Marvin Jones Jr. against man-to-man coverage on Sunday. Callahan added another third-down deflection, a sack and a tackle for a loss against the Lions.

Callahan is the type of aggressive nickel corner the Vikings covet, and a worthy opponent for a Vikings receiver tandem in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs that is among the NFL’s best producing from the slot.

5. Tight end David Morgan’s potential absence could be a big loss for the Vikings’ run game. Morgan, the No. 2 tight end and blocking specialist, injured his knee against the Lions and declined to discuss his recovery on Monday.

Morgan’s strength as a blocker allows the Vikings to draw up schemes like this one below on Cook’s 7-yard run against the Lions. The Vikings essentially “trap” the defensive end aligned between Reiff (#71) and Isidora (#63) with Morgan (#89) pulling inside to block him. They might not be inclined to run something like this if Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Conklin are the only available tight ends.

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