The Ravens defense has been the subject of much debate not only in Baltimore but throughout the league. A unit that was once the pride of Baltimore and struck fear in the hearts of opponents, particularly rival running backs and quarterbacks now seems very hospitable.
So what’s wrong?
Well the most popular scapegoat is undoubtedly defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Coaches are paid to teach and they are paid to recognize the unique skill sets of their players. It is then their responsibility to put those players in position to make plays. For my money, this is where departed DC Rex Ryan excels.
Clearly Mattison has coaching pedigree and he is admired by those who work with and for him – past and present. Yet the team’s struggles have created some cracks in his resume. His style is far less aggressive than Ryan’s and it just might be that his style isn’t a fit for the Ravens’ defensive personnel. Maybe they are just so accustomed to Ryan’s attacking style that aggression is in their blood – part of their football DNA. You can’t turn a shark into a herbivore.
Ryan was the team’s DC for four seasons and a member of the coaching staff for ten. He understood what worked for his roster – a roster that consisted and still consists of multi-talented players, many of whom are “tweeners” or hybrids and as a result he had the flexibility and ability to dare to be different. His players were proud to be part of a squad affectionately referred to as “organized chaos.”
Today, Mattison’s squad looks more like disorganized orderliness!
An approach that was supposed to stress gap integrity, commitment to assignments and eliminate the big play has for the most part done NONE of the above. The Ravens once had an offense that tipped its hand with personnel groupings. Today they have a defense that does the very same thing and the top end quarterbacks that they’ve faced have recognized this and made pre-snap adjustments to exploit such groupings and weaknesses.
Pre-snap the Ravens were once all over the field. Now they are as still as the statue in Unitas Plaza making it easier on opposing signal callers.
Players are not remaining true to their assignments and part of that could be their built-in and perhaps pent up desire to attack. Terrell Suggs blew his containment assignment on both of Adrian Peterson’s long runs. Ed Reed has often been out of position, perhaps cheating in an effort to make a game changing play. He was extremely pedestrian against the Vikings. Costly penalties born out of frustration could be the result players pressing.
Maybe the change to conservatism has the defensive players thinking too much. When players spend more time thinking they play slower and that’s a lethal combination in the speedy NFL.
It’s time for Mattison to let his players do what they do; let them ditch the disorganized orderliness and get back to the organized chaos. It’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks – to change a tiger’s stripes. It’s time to unleash the dogs.
And Mattison better do it soon.
There have been rumblings in the locker room about the defense’s conservatism. It’s a bit too soon to call it finger pointing but concerns have been expressed by players like Ray Lewis, Reed, Trevor Pryce and Jarret Johnson. After a few more times when the opposing QB has all day to throw, a few more big plays and another loss do the concerns morph into full-fledged finger pointing and then blossom into borderline mutiny?
Keep in mind (as if you need reminding) it has been the defense that has kept the Ravens competitive for far too long. They have earned the right to voice their displeasure for the betterment of the team but certainly within reason. Egos need to be checked at the door, Mattison’s included and come up with a plan that fits the personality, the talent and style of the team.
The Ravens don’t have to be among the top five defenses to win anymore. But they need to be better. That said is Mattison capable of spearheading the defense’s resurgence? Can the game be too fast for a coach? Does a coordinator go through growing pains at the NFL level similar to a player trying to adjust to the speed of the NFL?
And if the answer is yes, the cold hard question that needs to be asked is, “Why was Mattison even considered for the job?”
On the other sideline this weekend spearheading the Broncos defense is an old friend, Mike Nolan. Nolan was named the Denver defensive coordinator the day after the team hired Josh McDaniels and a week before the Jets named Ryan their head coach. Nolan, a native of Baltimore and someone clearly familiar with the surroundings in Owings Mills would have been an excellent choice to replace Ryan.
Nolan’s defense is second in the league in total defense and they’ve allowed only 66 points all season and he’s getting it done with personnel inferior to the tools with which Mattison has to work. Elvis Dumervil leads the league in sacks and he can credit Nolan with scheming efficiently to position Dumervil’s skill sets to attack the passer. Most of Dumervil’s sacks have come at the expense of tight ends and running backs.
That’s scheming. That’s game planning. That’s coaching.
When McDaniels hired Nolan, clearly he placed his feelers out there in advance hence the rapid hire. Why couldn’t the Ravens have placed similar feelers? All things being equal, wouldn’t Nolan choose Baltimore over Denver?
It’s all water under the bridge for sure but one thing is clear, Mattison and the defense have to step it up on Sunday. They have to make a statement. If the results are more of the same – missed assignments and tackles, big plays and big disappointments the heat will really be on come Monday.
Last season the Ravens were 2-3 and faced what many thought was a must win in Miami. They won and set the stage for a journey to the AFC Championship. Tomorrow is a similar game. A win gets the Ravens back on track. A loss will force them to win 7 of their last nine games to have any shot at a post season berth.
A loss like the one in Minnesota, like all three losses may leave John Harbaugh scratching his head wondering if he really made an objective hire when he brought in family friend Mattison.
It’s time to be less hospitable Matti.
It’s time to let the dogs out.