The Rex factor

The Baltimore Sun

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When the Tennessee Titans collide with the Ravens' defense in today's AFC divisional playoff game, they will have to account for Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and the X-factor.

Make that the Rex factor.

Rex Ryan, the Ravens' assistant head coach-defensive coordinator, is the mastermind of one of the most unpredictable defenses in the NFL, moving around Pro Bowl talent like chess pieces.

When Reed is running back an interception, it's Ryan who put him in position to do so. When Lewis is stuffing the run, it comes by Ryan's design.

So, if Lewis is recognized as the heart of the Ravens' defense, Ryan is the brain.

"He's a genius," defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "When you have a brain like his, you believe in a guy like that. He has the belief of all of his players."

Ryan's success - his defenses are statistically better than those of his predecessors who became head coaches, Marvin Lewis and Mike Nolan - has made him a candidate for the head coaching jobs with the New York Jets, St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions.

Some NFL insiders contend that Ryan has been passed over the past two seasons because he doesn't fit the CEO-type mold some owners are seeking.

Ryan, 46, is comfortable coaching in a sweat shirt. He doesn't make apologies for his pot belly and days-old stubble. He speaks off the cuff, not worrying about the politically correct approach.

He is just a football coach - and a shrewd one.

Last weekend, his attacking scheme got Chad Pennington to throw four interceptions after the Miami Dolphins quarterback had been picked off only seven times in 16 regular-season games.

Ryan will try to do the same today against Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, who also threw seven interceptions in the regular season.

"Schematically, they're unique," Collins said of the Ravens. "Obviously, in third-down situations, they bring blitzes from a lot of different places. I'm not sure we see any more exotic blitzes."

Since Ryan took over as coordinator in 2005, the Ravens have finished in the top six in total defense every year.

This season, the Ravens finished second in total defense and first in turnovers.

"It's organized chaos," Ryan said of his defensive style. "But there is a method to the madness."

Ask the players about what sets Ryan apart as a coordinator and they generally give three reasons:

* Creativity: : Ryan isn't afraid to try something new. Remember, this is the same coach who dived off a 35-foot cliff in Jamaica.

A few seasons ago, injuries hit the Ravens' defense so hard that Ryan moved six-time All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders to free safety and 280-pound linebacker Adalius Thomas to strong safety. This season, there were times when he used two down linemen and five linebackers.

"This is my fourth year with him as my defensive coordinator, so you would think you would have seen it all by now," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "But every week, he comes up with some new stuff."

* Relationships with players: : Ryan doesn't just use players as chess pieces. He makes them feel as if they are pieces of the defense.

He'll talk to Lewis, Reed and others to get input on the game plan. If there were any doubt about his popularity, Ryan was endorsed last year by most of the players to become the Ravens' new head coach.

"Coaching-wise, Rex is one thing, but as a man when you try to talk to him, he's just like a father," Lewis said. "Just being around Rex, being around his knowledge, being around his passion for the game, is kind of special to have him as a 'D' coordinator."

* Humor: : Last week, Ryan put on some film. The players thought they would see the Dolphins. Instead, it was Ryan trying to pass rush against defensive end Marques Douglas.

With two rotund guys smacking bellies, some players described it as like watching sumo wrestling.

"That's the funniest thing I've ever seen," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said.

Ngata then added: "The reason why we play loose is it starts with Rex. If you're not having fun, you're not going to be able to play on this defense. We're loose, fun, crazy guys."

While Ryan's defensive approach has been aggressive, he has had to be patient in his career.

It took five seasons before he got promoted from Ravens defensive line coach to coordinator. This will be his third season of interviewing for head coaching jobs (missing out on positions with the San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Dolphins and Ravens).

As long as the Ravens continue winning in the playoffs, it could reduce his chances of becoming a head coach next season. Teams might be more inclined to hire a coach now rather than wait for Ryan, who said he doesn't mind his predicament.

Ryan is scheduled to meet with the Rams tomorrow. Last season, St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney was a part of the Falcons' coaching search, and the organization had Ryan high on its list before hiring Mike Smith.

The next team on Ryan's interview list is the Jets, who will talk to Ryan as soon as tomorrow. One of Ryan's biggest supporters is Dolphins executive Bill Parcells, who still has influence in New York.

"If he left," cornerback Samari Rolle said of Ryan, "it would be hurtful in this building."

As assistant head coach to John Harbaugh, Ryan has received expanded duties this season. He has been included in the team's decision-making process, whether it's a discipline issue or the practice regimen.

"I think I'm twice as prepared this year for the opportunity to become a head coach than I was last year," Ryan said.

Nevertheless, he has spent this past week dissecting the AFC's top seed instead of working on his head coaching sales pitch.

"My future is right now, and that's to get this team ready to play the Titans and do all we can to beat the Titans," Ryan said. "I've worked all my life to get ready for an opportunity to be a head coach. I'm not going to be a phony. I'm going to be myself, and hopefully it's good enough for somebody. If not, then I'll stay here and coach this defense like I've been doing."

rex is king

Rex Ryan has put up better statistics during his four-year tenure as Ravens defensive coordinator than his predecessors:

Coordinator (years) Gms.* PPG YPG

Rex Ryan ('05-pres) 64 17.6 277.8

Mike Nolan ('02-'04) 48 18.8 302.0

Marvin Lewis ('96-'01) 96 19.0 304.0

* Regular season

Ravens (12-5)@Titans (13-3)

Today, 4:30 p.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM Line: Titans by 3

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