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TO REX RYAN, defensive football must be a game of deception played by 11 Mike Tysons. So it should come as no surprise that while preparing for the 2008 draft last winter, Ryan, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, became intrigued with a safety from Notre Dame named Tom Zbikowski. Ryan watched video of a pro boxing match between Zbikowski, a 214-pound heavyweight, and a pug named Robert Bell on an undercard at Madison Square Garden in June 2006. Thirty-five seconds into the fight Zbikowski threw a left hook to Bell's right cheek that his opponent never saw, then followed with a brutal overhand right. Down went Bell. First-round knockout.
"As soon as I saw Zibby in the ring," Ryan recalled last week, "I said, 'We have to have him.' He just destroyed that guy! My kind of guy! We don't chase the pretty girl. We chase the passionate, mean s.o.b. who loves football."
Baltimore drafted Zbikowski in the third round last April, and he made the team as a backup strong safety and special teams player. But that's not the end of the story. Ryan made the Zbikowski fight the Saturday-night video show for his defense before the Ravens' first game of this season, against the Bengals. "I wanted his new teammates to see why Zibby was going to kick the crap out of Cincinnati the next day," Ryan says. "They already knew he played like a Raven, but this reinforced it." The next day Zbikowski contributed a knockdown of Carson Palmer on a blindside blitz in Baltimore's 17--10 win.
"Football's a game of controlled violence," Zbikowski said last week, "and one of the most important things you do is inflict pain. But what you do here always has a smart idea behind it."
Spoken like a true Raven. During a typical week, Ryan's staff meets for long hours and concocts strange schemes that opponents have never seen. In a 2005 game against Houston, David Carr had no idea what hit him when four blitzers—so close to each other that their shoulders almost touched—plowed through the right tackle--guard hole. No one else rushed. Carr got up looking as if he had been hit by a Smart Car. Who rushes four men from the same spot and leaves the other lanes empty? "Rex does a great job on the overload blitzes," says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "It's hard for an offense to adjust to something like that when you don't leave other spots on the field uncovered."
Ryan, 46, learned from the master of pressure D—his dad, Buddy, who was all about mismatches and intimidation. Buddy Ryan brought the blitz-dominated 46 defense to the NFL as defensive coordinator of the Bears in the early '80s; cornerbacks were valued for their ability to blitz and play bump-and-run. "My dad was all about outnumbering the protection," Rex says. "If there was a six-man protection, he'd send seven. He had a Cover Zero philosophy." Buddy also taught sons Rex and Rob—the Raiders' defensive coordinator—to use their imagination to outsmart the offense. Rex's schemes seem as risky as Buddy's, but look closer. He never leaves the deep middle exposed.
In Baltimore, Rex's creativity has included taking a page from the LeBeau zone-blitz book by dropping 345-pound tackle Haloti Ngata into a shallow zone and leaving the center to block no one, while a blitzer rushes through another gap. Often Ryan will mix zone and man coverage on the same play, using a Cover Two look deep while shadowing shallow receivers man-to-man. "Our system works," Rex says, "because on every play the offense is thinking, Here comes the blitz. And whether it is or not, the quarterback better have a clock in his head, because he's not going to have much time."