Shift To 4-3 'D': Real Or Illusion?

Jets' Ryan May Not Recognize His Former Team's Alignment

August 24, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

When Rex Ryan brings his New York Jets to face the Ravens in tonight's preseason game, he'll enter a familiar stadium and see old friends on the other sideline.

But the former Ravens defense coordinator might not recognize everything on the field.

The Ravens played strictly a 4-3 defense (four down linemen and three linebackers) in the preseason opener, and linebacker Ray Lewis suggested this could be the base defensive alignment this season.

This would be a surprising change for the Ravens, who went with a 3-4 defense over the past seven seasons (including four with Ryan as coordinator). The last time the Ravens used a 4-3 as their primary alignment was 2001.

"It's going to be exciting," Lewis said. "It's not like the guys don't like it. All of the guys freakin' love it. That's what's so beautiful about it."

The Ravens dominated in a 4-3 defense in 2000 and 2001, using tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa to clog up the middle and ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary to attack the edges.

Now, the Ravens can attack the same way with Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg on the inside and Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs on the edges.

Lewis, who dropped 15 pounds from last season, seems ready to be the centerpiece of the defense again, running sideline to sideline to chase down ball carriers.

"You're talking about the ideal defense for a middle linebacker," he said. "That's why all the great ones played that. It's just so much different. It's like telling a point guard to control the floor. That's what a 4-3 does."

But some Ravens say there hasn't been a switch in the defense under new coordinator Greg Mattison. Asked about the Ravens' front four, Pryce corrected the question by saying it's still only three down linemen.

The Ravens, though, used a 4-3 defense as their base alignment in the preseason opener. Along with Pryce, Gregg and Ngata on the line, rookie Paul Kruger (who was filling in for the injured Suggs) put his hand down as the fourth lineman.

Pryce explained that it's a personal preference whether Suggs or Kruger stands up to be a linebacker or lines up as an end.

"So it just depends on whatever that guy wants to do," Pryce said. "Really, it confuses nobody except them."

However the Ravens line up, they remain committed to being one of the NFL's top defenses.

In shutting out the Redskins to open the preseason, the Ravens held them to 2.9 yards per carry and stopped them on 10 of 11 third downs. Looking as aggressive as they did under Ryan, the Ravens sent two linebackers (Lewis and Jarret Johnson) from the blind side on one third down and blitzed nickel back Chris Carr on another.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the transition from Ryan to Mattison has been seamless.

"This is not Greg's first time around the block," Harbaugh said. "He's been a defensive coordinator for years, and that's showing up. I think the players feel it. If we don't stop people like we want, [then] that's going to be on us - players, coaches, all of us together. But I think we've done a good job in camp, and we have a chance to be a really good defense."

Ryan, who spent 10 years with the Ravens, has something to prove in his homecoming.

"I want [the Ravens] to know that my guys are playing like Jets and we're to be taken seriously," Ryan said. "The fact that I got passed over for the coaching job there ... does that mean anything? Maybe it does."

When Brian Billick was fired in 2008, Ryan interviewed for the job, but the Ravens decided to hire John Harbaugh instead. Ryan was retained as defensive coordinator.

"I will always think it was BS," Ryan said. "I always thought I was the right guy for the job."

While preseason games are generally forgettable, this one could be emotional for Ryan as well as linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, two starters on a team that made the AFC championship game last season.

Ravens running back Willis McGahee said this game is for more than bragging rights.

"People want to go after each other this game just because you've got Rex on one end and Coach Harbaugh on the other," he said. "So, it's going to be quite interesting."

Ravens vs. Jets: What to watch

What to look for in the Ravens' second preseason game tonight:

POSITION: Defensive tackle. This is why offenses will have a hard time running against the Ravens again this year. The Ravens start Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg and then replace them with Justin Bannan, Brandon McKinney and Kelly Talavou. The Redskins didn't break a run longer than 7 yards in the preseason opener.

VETERAN: Quarterback Troy Smith. One team official said the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner is the most improved player on the offense. In the preseason opener, the Ravens' top backup quarterback looked deep downfield, averaging 14.3 yards per completion. It'll be interesting if he has the same time against Rex Ryan's defense.

ROOKIE: Cornerback-returner Lardarius Webb. The third-round pick finished training camp among the leaders in interceptions. Webb could make a push to become the team's returner with a couple of long runbacks in the preseason.

ON THE BUBBLE: Wide receiver Justin Harper. He led the Ravens with four receptions in the preseason opener. He also dropped as many. If he wants to be a factor on offense, Harper has to show more consistent hands.

INJURY REPORT: Starters not expected to play are linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs (heel) and wide receiver Mark Clayton (hamstring). Others expected to be sidelined are linebacker Dannell Ellberbe (knee) and offensive tackle Stefan Rodgers (leg).

- Jamison Hensley

PRESEASON GAME Jets@Ravens, tonight, 8 * TV: Ch. 11, ESPN * Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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