Defense in limbo may mean tricky steps for Mattison

The Baltimore Sun

Greg Mattison said all the right things at the Ravens' news conference yesterday.

The new defensive coordinator confirmed that the current scheme and packages will remain in place, and that the players and coaches will have major input. He talked about playing with the same enthusiasm and passion of past great Ravens defensive teams.

It was a smart move to promote Mattison, but was it a good move?

We might not know for a few years. Of all the times to become the Ravens' defensive coordinator, this could be the toughest since the team moved here from Cleveland for the 1996 season.

In the past, it really didn't matter who was the coordinator because the Ravens had the best middle linebacker in the NFL in Ray Lewis.

Without Lewis, former Ravens head coach Brian Billick might not have won a Super Bowl. Without Lewis, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith, Mike Singletary and Rex Ryan might not have become head coaches. Whenever there was transition, everything was passed down in a nice, neat little package.

But now, the Ravens' defense is in limbo. Gone is former coordinator Ryan, now the head coach of the New York Jets. In a few weeks, three of the team's Pro Bowl linebackers - Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs - could be in free agency, and two of its starting cornerbacks - Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle - might eventually head somewhere else.

Mattison, the Ravens' linebackers coach for only one season, has the experience to be successful, having coached at Northwestern, Navy, Michigan, Notre Dame and Florida. You can't question that background, or his schemes, which have always been similar to the Ravens'.

His defense will shut down the run and pressure the quarterback. In fact, he might even bring linebackers more than Ryan.

And like Ryan, he seems to get along with his players, at least the linebackers.

"He's the coordinator now. That's a great thing," Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He has tons of experience. Personally, I had a great coach the year before in Jeff FitzGerald, but he gave you a lot of information. Coach Mattison just simplifies things. He really helped me with my technique. I suspect there will be some different wrinkles, but if he wants to blitz linebackers more, I'm totally into it."

Suggs said: "I don't know if he can be another Rex Ryan. They are some mighty big shoes to fill, but if anybody can fill them, it's Coach Mattison. I don't foresee a lot of changes because good coaches build their systems around the players, and we already have the players in place."

Maybe they do, and maybe they don't.

It would be so much easier if Lewis, Suggs and Scott were under contract. But Mattison could be looking at some new faces at the starting linebacker positions, which has been the backbone of this defense.

There is also the Vic Fangio factor. He replaced Mattison as linebackers coach. Like Mattison, he has the extensive background, but the players find him too serious and too rigid. That's going to be a tough sell, especially if the Big Three and their outgoing personalities come back for another season.

The Ravens might have to rebuild their secondary. Rolle and McAlister are under contract, but neither was very happy with the numerous meetings and long practices of rookie head coach John Harbaugh.

Rolle has earned enough money where he could just retire. As for McAlister, no one knows what he might do. Starting safety Dawan Landry is still having complications from a neck injury he suffered early in the season, and the player who replaced him, Jim Leonhard, is a free agent.

"I don't know him well except that he gets along with his position guys," Rolle said of Mattison. "I don't know what he'll be like as a coordinator. But trying to learn and teach a defense in the league is not hard, just as long as you have the players that fit."

In the past, the Ravens always had the players that fit. They always had a coordinator in waiting, one who had been with the team more than a season.

But those dynamics could change now pending free agency, and some other offseason moves. The Ravens probably have the right guy, but this might not be the right time compared with previous seasons.

"Greg is a good guy and the players respect him," Ryan said. "He is smart, works hard and he's the right kind of guy to lead that bunch of men in Baltimore."

Listen to Mike Preston every Monday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370-AM).

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