OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison oversees a unit every bit as effective and brash as those that thrived under Rex Ryan.
One difference: Mattison has done it without any of his predecessor’s bluster.
Before leaving to become head coach of the New York Jets, Ryan spent four years as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator. He was brazen and boastful, and backed up the bravado with a defense that perennially was among the best in the NFL.
Mattison is far more reserved, yet his defense is just as potent.
“To me, it’s a typical Baltimore defense: Very active, very physical, create a lot of plays,” said Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who will face the Ravens in the second round of the playoffs on Saturday night. “They’re playing well right now, and it will be a real challenge for us.”
The Ravens own the third-ranked defense in the NFL, and in their playoff opener they held New England to 196 yards in a 33-14 victory. Earlier this season, Baltimore held the Colts without a second-half touchdown in a 17-15 defeat.
Mattison won’t take any of the credit. He attributes his success to the performance of the players and a blueprint that was in place long before he arrived in 2008 as Baltimore’s linebackers coach.
“This is the defensive system that fits our players. The calls that a person could make aren’t going to be successful if you don’t have the guys out there executing them,” Mattison said. “It’s all about them executing whatever’s called.”
Mattison, 60, is probably being too modest. In addition to dealing with the pressure of taking over for one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, he also had to do without two standout players from last year, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, who followed Ryan to New York.
Mattison also had to fill the void left by season-ending knee injuries to cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb, along with the loss of safety Ed Reed and linebacker Terrell Suggs, each of whom missed several weeks with injuries.
“Anytime you lose players like that, it’s tough to be successful,” Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “Those are things you have to deal with. I thought he did a great job having the young guys step up, putting people in different roles and still being successful.”
Said Mattison: “As the Ravens do it, when somebody goes down, you’re only going to be as strong as the next guy that goes in there. When your opportunity comes, when it’s time for you do it, you step in there and the defense doesn’t slip.”
Sort of like Mattison stepping in for Ryan.
“The adjustment for him came kind of easy because last year he was linebackers coach under Rex,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “The vibe of how we work and how we talk to each other, that kind of started when he first got here. So that carried right over. It was a very easy transition.”
Which is not to say Mattison is anything like Ryan, who’s never been shy about speaking his mind in the locker room or on the sideline.
“The difference is, Mattison wants the players to play, whereas Rex was like, ‘I’ll go out there and we’ll get it done,'” defensive end Trevor Pryce said. “Two different ways of doing it, but it’s still football. Eleven guys on the ball.”
Rookie linebacker Paul Kruger didn’t play under Ryan. But he likes Mattison’s style, which can best be described as: Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how to do it, now go out and play your best.
“He’s a coach with high expectations. That’s what drives a lot of us to want to do good,” Kruger said. “He’ll teach it to you and go over it and over it, so if you make a mistake it’s kind of your fault. He sets a high standard for us, and for me, that really drives me to want to do well.”
The veterans on Baltimore’s defense loved playing for Ryan. But little has changed now that the low-key Mattison is in charge.
“It was tough losing Rex. He meant a lot to a lot of us around here,” Johnson said. “But if you’re going to lose Rex, you need a guy like coach Mattison to step into his role. I don’t think there could have been a better transition.”