CINCINNATI - -During the Ravens' bye week, their defense didn't really change. It communicated.
Greg Mattison, the team's first-year defensive coordinator, invited his players to speak to him and other coaches about their thoughts on improving the struggling unit.
They talked. He listened. The immediate result was a "tweaking" of the scheme. But the lasting effect, as some players pointed out, might be a stronger understanding between Mattison and his defense.
Today's game at the Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) is pivotal if the Ravens (4-3) want to remain in contention for the AFC North title. Just as important, this matchup against Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and Cedric Benson will test whether the Ravens have successfully bonded as a defense.
"Matti is very flexible when it comes to what works and what doesn't work. He's open," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said about the fourth coordinator in his 14-year career. "He wants us to be comfortable with what we're doing. That's the beautiful part about playing for coaches like him. You like to play for coaches like that. You don't want to disappoint him."
Before the bye, the Ravens were in the midst of one of their worst stretches as a defense this decade. They couldn't stop the run. They couldn't rush the passer. They couldn't cover wide receivers deep downfield.
Then, after a 13-day layoff, the defense dominated the undefeated Denver Broncos as it has done to so many other offenses in the past. The most surprising part of the day, however, was how the Ravens' defensive leaders voiced their approval of Mattison without being prompted.
"He treats us with respect," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said, "which gets a lot of guys on your side."
Mattison, who turns 60 next Sunday, has a different style. He is an old-school coach who is open to new ideas. Even though he spent his entire coaching career in the college ranks (most recently Michigan, Notre Dame and Florida) before joining the Ravens, his way isn't the only way.
"When you talk about a guy like Ray Lewis, Jarret Johnson, Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs, they've played a million snaps and they see things a lot differently than I do," Mattison said. "To get their input is always important. Now you don't take every suggestion. But for me to say, 'No, you do it this way and that's it,' wouldn't be right."
Mattison's interaction with the players goes beyond zone blitzes and press coverages.
He knows the names of his players' wives. He asks Lewis about his son's football games. Mattison's wife even brings post-game snacks for the players.
"He wants to get to know you as more than just a football player," outside linebacker Johnson said, "which is rare in the NFL."
The family atmosphere under Mattison should be expected. In many ways, he's an extension of the Harbaugh family.
Mattison served five years on the Western Michigan staff under Jack Harbaugh, father of Ravens coach John Harbaugh. John Harbaugh worked two years under Mattison when he was the defensive coordinator there. And Joan Harbaugh, John's sister, used to baby-sit Mattison's daughter, Lisa.
Even with that connection, it was a challenge to persuade Mattison to come to the Ravens. Mattison felt conflicted in leaving the University of Florida because he had built so many close relationships with the players and the recruiting class.
"He's genuine. He's humble," John Harbaugh said. "You get the sense that there is no guile in Greg."
That's why the players strongly supported Mattison to take over for Rex Ryan this offseason, a promotion filled with challenges.
Not only did Mattison have to replace one of the most popular coaches on the staff, he took over the NFL's second-ranked defense in only his second season in the league.
When Harbaugh entered the NFL, he remembers someone telling him that it took five years to understand the personnel in the league, no matter how smart you are or how much you study film.
"There's always a transition," Harbaugh said. "That was expected and anticipated. That's the challenge we all face."
Expectations remained high because the Ravens returned eight starters from a defense that ranked in the top five in 11 of the 12 major statistics. So, it was startling to see the defense plummet to the bottom half of the NFL.
The scheme was criticized because the players didn't move around before the ball was snapped as they did under Ryan. The Ravens also didn't seem to blitz as much as last season.
Fans started questioning Mattison's job performance. But the players did not.
"That's baloney," Lewis said. "No coordinator makes a defense. They help the defense, of course. But players make plays. Matti isn't playing the run. Matti isn't blowing coverages. We are."
After the defense's best performance of the season last week, players complimented Mattison on his game plan. Some praised their multiple alignments. Others said they blitzed more.
But Mattison doesn't chalk up the success to schemes. It's about teamwork.
"The biggest thing is, it doesn't matter what you call it if you don't have those players," he said. "It's your job as a coach to get them in the best position where they can win. This defense, we're all in it together."
Where the Ravens ranked in their first year under a new defensive coordinator:
Yr Coordinator Run Pass Total
'96 Marvin Lewis 23rd 30th 30th
'02 Mike Nolan 13th 26th 22nd
'05 Rex Ryan 9th 8th 5th
'09 Greg Mattison* 4th 19th 13th
*-Through seven games
Today, 1 p.m.
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