AFTER 32 YEARS asa college assistant, Greg Mattison was conflicted about leaving his position asco--defensive coordinator at Florida last year to take a job as the Ravens'linebackers coach. So conflicted, in fact, that he called Baltimore's newcoach, his good friend John Harbaugh, while changing planes in Atlanta on hisway north and told him, "I can't do it. I can't leave my guys."Harbaugh persuaded him to catch his flight.
"Greg's soloyal, and he felt awful about leaving players he'd recruited," Harbaughsays. "That's the kind of guy he is. Our players got a sense of that rightaway. Ray Lewis, in particular, loved him. Ray likes coaches who can make himbetter, and Greg made him better."
Mattison'sinfluence will extend to the Ravens' entire defense this season as he replacescoordinator Rex Ryan, who left to take over the Jets. During the 10 years thatRyan served on Baltimore's staff, the team allowed the fewest points and fewestrushing yards in the NFL. Peyton Manning says Ryan's D required more homeworkthan any other "because you never knew from one game to the next what you'dsee. The pressure came from different places every game."
Mattison feels thesame loyalty to Ryan's attacking defense that he did to his old Gators players."Rex's principles were smart, and they worked," says the unassuming59-year-old Mattison, who looks more like a State Farm agent than an NFL coach."If that's risk-taking, then I'm a risk-taker."
Comparing Mattisonwith his predecessor, Harbaugh says, "The personalities are different, butthe confidence is the same, the aggressiveness is the same. And I think Greg'sgoing to be a little more creative."
What you'llcertainly get from Mattison is less bombast—before taking on the Colts in theplayoffs two years ago, Ryan said, "As big a challenge as we face in PeytonManning, he faces a bigger challenge in us"—and more traditional rushschemes. Ryan loved to throw changeups at the line, having hard-hitting Ed Reedsneak up from his safety position, or overloading one side of the field,telegraphing that three rushers were coming through one gap and then daring thequarterback to make a play before one of the rushers pummeled him.
Mattison won't doas much overloading, preferring tactics such as putting outside linebackerTerrell Suggs over the left tackle to engage in a one-on-one battle so thatother defenders can get their chances against lesser blockers. He'll alsoemploy more 4--3 fronts, especially with tackle Kelly Gregg (who played thenose in Ryan's 3--4) returning from a 2008 knee injury to work alongsidepenetrating interior rusher Haloti Ngata. "He's the kind of coach who seeswhat you do well and puts you in position to do it," says Suggs, who hasaveraged nearly nine sacks during his six seasons and recently signed asix-year deal for a reported $63 million, making him the league's highest-paidlinebacker. "That's all you ask from a coach."
While thetemptation is not to tinker, the Ravens have to improve under Mattison ifthey're to edge past the Steelers in the AFC North. Both clubs have almost thesame rosters as in '08, when Pittsburgh beat Baltimore three times (by a totalof 16 points), the last being the violent AFC title game at Heinz Field. Onekey departure from the Ravens' D was bruising safety Jim Leonhard, who followedRyan to New York, but he's replaced by the capable Dawan Landry, who's backfrom a spinal injury that cost him the final 14 games of last season.
Under theleadership of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, in '08 Baltimore put up 110 morepoints than it did the previous year—and in fact outscored the Colts. But thisis still a defense-first team. For the Ravens to vanquish their hated rivals tothe northwest, the adjustment to Mattison is going to have to be quick andseamless.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
11--5 in NFL, second season with Ravens
McClain (232att., 902 yards) returns to FB with Willis McGahee (170 att., 671 yards, 7TTDs) sharing the TB load with Rice; former Eagle L.J. Smith (37 rec.) backs upHeap.
New coordinatorGreg Mattison has been experimenting with the 4--3, in which Suggs lines up atDE and Gooden shifts to OLB.
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 11--5
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 4 > 28 > 18
DEFENSE 3 > 2 > 2
13 KANSAS CITY
20 at San Diego
4 at New England
18 at Minnesota
8 at Cincinnati
16 at Cleveland (M)
7 at Green Bay (M)
27 at Pittsburgh
3 at Oakland
NFL Rank: 28
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .438
Games against playoff teams: 5
The running game should continue to thrive as the Ravens face six of the sevenworst rush defenses in the league. Baltimore got a break from the NFL afterreportedly asking to be spared a prime-time game in Pittsburgh, where theRavens are 0--3 under the lights since 2005. It's a soft schedule overall,though it includes dates with three Hall of Fame--bound QBs in Brady, Favre andManning.
Ray Rice, Running back
JOE FLACCO dropped back from center, surveyed thefield and saw what is likely to be a common sight this season on a club notloaded with talent at wideout: No one was open downfield. So Flacco threw aquick dart to the right flat, a little high and a little ahead of Rice, but thesecond-year back from Rutgers shot his right arm into the air, nabbed the ballone-handed, brought it into his body effortlessly and turned upfield tocomplete the training camp play. "I'm not going to say he's MarshallFaulk," says coach Jim Harbaugh, "but he's got the skill set of a Faulkor a Brian Westbrook, in that he can pick up blockers, run outside and reallycatch the ball. I think this is the year he breaks out."
The Ravens' staff also liked how Rice ran between thetackles this summer, not surprising considering he made his mark in college asa tough inside runner. He'll do more of that this year. Just don't expect Riceto put up fantasy numbers, because he shares the rushing load with theresurgent Willis McGahee and last year's breakout fullback, Le'Ron McClain—andeven Harbaugh doesn't know how the rotation will work week to week. Rice had atotal of 140 rushes and receptions as a rookie, and he could double his touchesin 2009. "The oldest saying in football is that competition makes everyonebetter," says Harbaugh. "I know it'll be that way with our runningbacks."
FULL THROTTLE Suggs's role may change under the new regime, but his engine will still run high.