OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rex Ryan and John Harbaugh will inevitably be linked through the rest of their coaching careers after the Ravens bypassed their then-defensive coordinator to hire Harbaugh in January 2008.
However, a more interesting comparison might be Ryan to the Ravens’ current defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. After all, Ryan never served in a head coaching capacity in Baltimore, but the brash son of Buddy Ryan led several outstanding defenses as coordinator from 2005 to 2008. He’s spent all but seven of his 25 years in coach at the NFL level.
Pagano spent 17 years coaching at the collegiate ranks before getting his first opportunity to coach the secondary of the Cleveland Browns in 2001. The 50-year-old joined the Baltimore staff in 2008, working first under Ryan and then Greg Mattison before finally getting the defensive coordinator job this offseason.
So, what did Pagano take away from his year working for Ryan?
“Coming from a football family, there is a wealth of knowledge there from a football and schematic standpoint, and those types of things,” said Pagano, who coached with Ryan’s twin brother Rob in Oakland for two years. “It was a great year for me, and also, a great year for Mattison and everybody else who had an opportunity to spend a year with him. It was really good for me and my maturation process.”
Ravens defensive veterans such as Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs are not bashful about their affection for Ryan — even three seasons after his departure — but many players get the same twinkle in their eyes when talking about their new defensive leader and the impact he’s had on the Baltimore defense.
“Both of them are very fiery, and I think [there are] a lot of similarities because both of them are ‘player’ coaches,” Lewis said. “They really relate to their players and things like that. Both of them are very outgoing. I think Chuck is more settled when it comes to [addressing] the outside world, but to us, Chuck is Chuck. That’s what we appreciate the most, and that’s why we’re doing the things we are doing because of the flexibility he gives us.”
After playing with a more conservative approach under Mattison the last two seasons, Pagano has preached a desire to be aggressive, and the strategy certainly worked when the Ravens accumulated nine sacks in their wins over Pittsburgh and St. Louis. However, Pagano had no answers for Tennessee when the Ravens gave up 358 passing yards to Matt Hasselbeck in a 26-13 loss.
The Jets have found uneven results defensively through their first three weeks, surprisingly ranking 31st against the run after Darren McFadden and the Oakland Raiders gouged New York for 234 rushing yards in a 34-24.
Despite the inconsistent results three weeks into the regular season, both teams have sterling defensive reputations, a point made in the Ravens’ brutally physical 10-9 win over the Jets a year ago. Three weeks into the Pagano era, perhaps the best way to label the coordinator is “Rex Ryan light”
“Rex gets a little more emotional with his calls,” linebacker Jarret Johnson. “If you torch Rex, [he’s] going to bring it at you just because you torched him. Chuck is a little more heady about it, but they’re both very aggressive.”
As for the comparisons his own players have made between him and Ryan, the Ravens coordinator believes his aggressiveness stems from the system put in place in Baltimore years ago rather than the heavy influence of Ryan.
“You always want to play to your strengths, and I think our strength is coming after people,” Pagano said. “We’ve got the guys to match up on the outside to cover. We’ve got guys that, when we send them, they get home. So, I think it’s just the personality and who we are.”
That pressure will need to be there against the Jets, who have averaged 278.7 passing yards per game through the first three weeks despite struggling to run the football (25th in run offense). Quarterback Mark Sanchez has thrown six touchdown passes and four interceptions through the first three games.
For Pagano, the memory of Tennessee’s Kenny Britt torching the Ravens secondary will likely be fresh in his mind as Baltimore tries to match up with talented receiver Santonio Holmes and the 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress on Sunday night.
The memories of Holmes’ work as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Ravens has not been forgotten by Pagano.
“He’s a threat down the field,” he said. “He poses a threat, run after the catch. He’s been a Raven killer. I just go back to my nightmares, when I wake up in the middle of the night sweating. It’s because I think of 2008, the three losses in 2008. He had a hand in all of them.”
Neutralizing Holmes’ big-play ability will depend heavily on how much pressure the Ravens can create on Sanchez, something Pagano is well aware of. But he won’t be looking across the field trying to one-up his former mentor in Baltimore.
That’s not Pagano’s style.
“I’m just trying to be the same guy that I’ve always been,” Pagano said. “I’ve got to be true to who I am, and that’s really all I’m trying to do.”
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