Entering his second year as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison says little has changed, but some of his players disagree. They notice a more comfortable and confident Mattison, one willing to take more chances.
There remains one constant, though.
"He's a tough guy, has skin like an armadillo," defensive tackle Kelly Gregg said.
The transition of a year ago was a huge success for Mattison, 60. The Ravens survived a shaky first quarter of the season, especially in pass defense, and finished 2009 ranked No. 3 overall, the seventh straight year the Ravens' defense has finished in the top six.
The Ravens also had the NFL's best run defense, allowing only 3.4 yards per carry, were ranked fourth in turnover ratio (plus 10) and third in points allowed (16.3).
What can we expect for an encore?
"When I walked into that room as the defensive coordinator for the first time, I knew there were great players, great staff and great people already in that room," Mattison said. "Unlike some places, you know what you get here, that every player on this defense is going to play hard all the time. It's demanded by the players themselves."
Mattison is being polite, but he deserves a lot of credit. It's not easy being the defensive coordinator in Baltimore following in the footsteps of Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan. There's a deep defensive tradition here, as there is in Pittsburgh, Tennessee and New York, with the Giants.
So when the Ravens struggled early last season, there were some who thought Mattison was overmatched; others demanded that he be fired after only four games.
The irony is that the Ravens gave Mattison total acceptance when they were struggling because he didn't panic.
"After the first couple of games, that's when we knew he was the man," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When you go out and give up a couple of big plays here and there, he comes in and the way he explains, well, he lets you know how good you can be if we just do this or do that. I think that's when the players started to respect him as the coach. His approach to every situation was the same; whether you were playing good or bad, he was still the same man."
Mattison, though, still had some learning to do. Early last season, the Ravens were different from the blitz-happy, unpredictable defenses that had become so familiar in Baltimore. Mattison seemed to be locked in a college time warp.
In other words, the Ravens had become too basic and too predictable, which is a definite no-no in the NFL. But by midseason, the defense was starting to evolve.
"As the year went on, he had more confidence in us to run more stuff and move around and play some odd fronts, stuff like that," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "The further we went on, the better we played. I think it's going to start out that way for us this year."
It already has. In the first two games, the Ravens have run all types of blitzes. They're moving outside linebacker Terrell Suggs around again from the left to the right side. Mattison is using all kinds of pass-rushing combinations.
The Ravens are attacking.
"He's added some stuff," Gregg said, "a little more of what he likes to do, and it is all coming into its own."
Added Johnson: "I think we're more aggressive, and that goes back to the confidence thing. He trusts us, and we trust him. Having one year under his belt is a big thing."
According to Lewis, Mattison is more relaxed because he knows how to "work the room" now and challenge certain players. Even Mattison conceded that the hardest part of being a coordinator was no longer working with a small group of players as an assistant.
"I had spent 36 years sweating, coaching my individuals, coaching my group, and I took pride in that," said Mattison, a former linebackers coach. "I've never been a walk-around guy, and this was all new to me, not having that direct hands-on experience with a small group of players. I had to learn about a lot of new, different players."
Mattison had to learn some other things as well.
"In the NFL, you learn that the ball is in the middle of the field most of the game, and you have to learn to defense everybody everywhere on the field," said Mattison, who spent 36 years as a college assistant. "You've also got to coach from game to game. You can be a great coach in one game, and then you've got to prove it again in the next one. In college, you can lose one game and be out of the national championship race. Here, you're in it for the long haul until the final whistle of the last game.
"Some things, though, won't change, and this game is about knowing your players and putting them in the right position to make plays," Mattison said. "Winning is the most important thing, but my other top priority is putting players in position for them to have success."
It's something he did well last season.
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