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For Chuck Pagano, the mantle was passed last Jan. 18, in the wake of a disquieting playoff loss in Pittsburgh after a season in which that defense was besieged — relatively speaking — with problems defending the pass. No sooner had coordinator Greg Mattison opted for a return to the University of Michigan than Pagano was tapped to replace him.
Eight months and one lockout later, the back end of the Ravens' defense might be its strength. Any sense of "soft" has been removed. The arrival of precocious rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, the emergence of reserve corner Cary Williams and the addition of safety Bernard Pollard were the significant changes.
Going into Sunday's season opener against the Steelers, the defense will carry Pagano's distinct fingerprints. That is to say, the Ravens will be more aggressive, blitz more often and can be expected to raise the ante on quarterback discomfort. In one truncated training camp, Pagano has invigorated the defense by restoring its swagger and confidence.
The team's secondary coach the past three seasons, Pagano was just the man for the defensive renewal.
"I think one of the things that I have seen about Chuck that has been consistent over the years is that he has a great football mind," said Jerry Rosburg, the Ravens' special teams coordinator who worked with Pagano on the Cleveland Browns' staff from 2001 to 2004.
"He understands football, and the other part of that — I think that makes him a great coach — is that he understands people. He has a tremendous sense of humor. Even in the most tense moments, he can make things relaxed by just a witty comment."
Like former coordinators Marvin Lewis and Rex Ryan, Pagano's relationship with players has always been one of his hallmarks. He can move easily among them in the locker room or on the practice field. His enthusiasm is always on display.
Veteran safety Bernard Pollard quickly picked up on that after he signed with the team on Aug. 4.
"Chuck shows his excitement to players," Pollard said. "One of the best things I've seen here is the players' respect for him. As a coach, you can get some players who don't like you, but if they respect you, that's all you need. But he has both of them — he has players that love him and respect him."
That enthusiasm comes naturally. That's how Pagano, 50, coached players as a secondary coach, and when he became coordinator, he didn't want to pretend to be someone else.
"That's my personality and that's how I've always been," he said. "You've got to be yourself. If I tried to coach differently, act differently, talk differently and not have fun with the guys like I have had fun — there's a fine line there — then they would sniff it out in a heartbeat. I'm just being me."
Even players who haven't been under Pagano's tutelage have an appreciation for his leadership and his personality.
"The first thing you notice is his confidence," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Chuck is very confident in what he's doing, very confident on what he's saying and the way he coaches. And that's a great thing. When a coach is insecure or has some weakness or doubt about what he's saying, it shows. It never shows with Chuck."
Ravens cornerback Chris Carr was a rookie with Oakland in 2005 when he first met Pagano, who coached the Raiders' defensive backs. Pagano was the same then — outgoing, confident, always positive — and he helped give Carr the foundation he needed to make it as an undrafted free agent.
"He possessed a lot of knowledge of route combination and concepts you're going to get on game days," Carr said. "He is a big film-study guy. You know he's going to watch it inside and out, and he's going to have a lot of good keys and a lot of good tendencies for you for the game."
Rosburg saw Pagano grow with experience. He saw a coach who adapted well to fresh ideas and who was able to incorporate them into his playbook.
"I think probably the thing that has changed with Chuck more than anything," Rosburg said, "is the defensive systems that he has been in have allowed him to pick and choose what he likes. When I was working with Chuck [in Cleveland], it was more of a 4-3 system, and since that time, he has evolved tremendously because he has been in different systems, including, of course, the Ravens' defense. That has allowed him to really grow in his football toolbox, so to speak. He has a lot of different things he likes from different systems, and he is able to bring them all together here now."