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AFTER 32 YEARS as a college assistant, Greg Mattison was conflicted about leaving his position as co--defensive coordinator at Florida last year to take a job as the Ravens' linebackers coach. So conflicted, in fact, that he called Baltimore's new coach, his good friend John Harbaugh, while changing planes in Atlanta on his way north and told him, "I can't do it. I can't leave my guys." Harbaugh persuaded him to catch his flight.
"Greg's so loyal, and he felt awful about leaving players he'd recruited," Harbaugh says. "That's the kind of guy he is. Our players got a sense of that right away. Ray Lewis, in particular, loved him. Ray likes coaches who can make him better, and Greg made him better."
Mattison's influence will extend to the Ravens' entire defense this season as he replaces coordinator Rex Ryan, who left to take over the Jets. During the 10 years that Ryan served on Baltimore's staff, the team allowed the fewest points and fewest rushing yards in the NFL. Peyton Manning says Ryan's D required more homework than any other "because you never knew from one game to the next what you'd see. The pressure came from different places every game."
Mattison feels the same loyalty to Ryan's attacking defense that he did to his old Gators players. "Rex's principles were smart, and they worked," says the unassuming 59-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 Mattison with his predecessor, Harbaugh says, "The personalities are different, but the confidence is the same, the aggressiveness is the same. And I think Greg's going to be a little more creative."
What you'll certainly get from Mattison is less bombast—before taking on the Colts in the playoffs two years ago, Ryan said, "As big a challenge as we face in Peyton Manning, he faces a bigger challenge in us"—and more traditional rush schemes. Ryan loved to throw changeups at the line, having hard-hitting Ed Reed sneak up from his safety position, or overloading one side of the field, telegraphing that three rushers were coming through one gap and then daring the quarterback to make a play before one of the rushers pummeled him.
Mattison won't do as much overloading, preferring tactics such as putting outside linebacker Terrell Suggs over the left tackle to engage in a one-on-one battle so that other defenders can get their chances against lesser blockers. He'll also employ more 4--3 fronts, especially with tackle Kelly Gregg (who played the nose in Ryan's 3--4) returning from a 2008 knee injury to work alongside penetrating interior rusher Haloti Ngata. "He's the kind of coach who sees what you do well and puts you in position to do it," says Suggs, who has averaged nearly nine sacks during his six seasons and recently signed a six-year deal for a reported $63 million, making him the league's highest-paid linebacker. "That's all you ask from a coach."
While the temptation is not to tinker, the Ravens have to improve under Mattison if they're to edge past the Steelers in the AFC North. Both clubs have almost the same rosters as in '08, when Pittsburgh beat Baltimore three times (by a total of 16 points), the last being the violent AFC title game at Heinz Field. One key departure from the Ravens' D was bruising safety Jim Leonhard, who followed Ryan to New York, but he's replaced by the capable Dawan Landry, who's back from a spinal injury that cost him the final 14 games of last season.
Under the leadership of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, in '08 Baltimore put up 110 more points than it did the previous year—and in fact outscored the Colts. But this is still a defense-first team. For the Ravens to vanquish their hated rivals to the northwest, the adjustment to Mattison is going to have to be quick and seamless.
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