Ravens' coaching staff deserves tons of credit for getting this team to the Super Bowl

January 21, 2013|Mike Preston

The Ravens coaching staff might be a victim of the front office's success and its ability to draft or sign good players.

You never hear John Harbaugh mentioned as a possible NFL Coach of the Year. Brian Billick was never a serious candidate either, even though he had a good run in Baltimore from 1999 until 2008.

Few of the experts expected the Ravens to win the AFC North, much less play in the Super Bowl in New Orleans. A 9-7 or 8-8 record was a more realistic possibility.

Miracles still happen.

But to say the Ravens were just a team of destiny would cheapen some of the things they accomplished in 2012. When you look back, there were moments when they could have fallen apart and didn't.

The Ravens had good coaching.

This is not about trying to make Harbaugh the Coach of the Year. That's not his style, or mine, either.

But when you look at the injuries, staff changes and young players, the Ravens are on a remarkable run because of the strong coaching.

Just look at first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

He had to follow in the footsteps of other former Ravens coordinators like Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano. But at least most of them had inside linebacker Ray Lewis in his prime.

Pees got an old Lewis and an old Ed Reed. His defense was minus its former signal caller, Jarret Johnson, and its best defensive end, Cory Redding. His best cover corner, Lardarius Webb, was lost for the season early in the year with a knee injury, and Lewis, linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Bernard Pollard also missed extensive time with injuries.

Pees also had to work with a lot of new starting players, like end Arthur Jones, outside linebackers Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan, and cornerbacks Corey Graham and Chykie Brown.

In the beginning of the season, the Ravens struggled. When that happens in Baltimore, fans typically have one solution: blitz and blitz.

And blitz some more.

Instead, Pees chose to call plays from upstairs instead of on the field so he could get them in sooner. He put some of his players in situations where they were stronger. For example, Kruger was used more in passing situations, while Upshaw became more of a run stopper. Instead of having to play full time with a "soft" Achilles, Terrell Suggs shared some time with McClellan.

Pees changed up his coverages on the back end and the Ravens became more physical. They certainly became better tacklers. The Ravens can play an attacking style or play bend-but-don't-break, as they did the past two weeks against star quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

There are no more questions about Pees' coaching abilities.

"I think Dean is a great leader. I think we have a great staff," Harbaugh said. "And Ed [Reed] alluded to it — coaches and players working together to make each other better. That's kind of a motto that we had. And Dean did a great job transitioning really what is a young defense.

"When you look at our defense a bit, it's become a young defense. We needed to adjust what we we're doing a little bit schematically and we did that. We got back to playing. We got [back] to playing those guys in a very fundamentally sound way. And it showed up in the way we played defense in the second half of this season."

The Ravens showed improvement on the other side of the ball as well. Few people ever heard of tight ends coach Wade Harman, but he developed Todd Heap and now has another potential great in Dennis Pitta.

You can't get a lot of words out of running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, but he helped cultivate the talents of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson in St. Louis, and now has Ray Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce on his resume.

And then there is Harbaugh.

During the Ravens' three-game losing streak in early December, I suggested it was time for him to take charge of his team. Enough of the rah-rah, mighty, mighty men stuff. So Harbaugh put on his big boy pants and fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after a 31-28 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins, even though the Ravens were 9-4.

The timing was strange, but the move was endorsed here.

Nearly a month later, Harbaugh allowed Bryant McKinnie out of the doghouse and into the starting lineup at left offensive tackle. He moved Michael Oher to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele to left guard.

The move was way overdue, but at least Harbaugh swallowed his pride.

Since then with Jim Caldwell calling plays, the Ravens have been reborn on offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been playing well, and seems more at ease now than ever before in his previous five seasons.

But this isn't all about X&Os. Harbaugh has handled the Ray Lewis retirement tour well, even though it could have been a problem.

Harbaugh is old school. He probably would have preferred Lewis retire like Jonathan Ogden, where one day he picked up the phone and told general manager Ozzie Newsome he was done.

Lewis is always camera ready and all about theatrics. Harbaugh seemed a little annoyed that Lewis was so long-winded in his first public announcement about retiring, but has been gracious while giving the linebacker the proper send-off.

There's a lot more to coaching than most people think. Besides the strategies and the game planning, the coaching staff has to know the personality of the team and maintain the pulse.

The Ravens are under control. Harbaugh has used the underdog role well and is extremely confident. Regardless of whether or not the Ravens beat San Francisco on Feb. 3 in New Orleans, this coaching staff has gotten just about every ounce of talent out of this team.

There isn't much more to give.


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