Have The Ravens Already Lost Too Much To Maintain Their Defensive “System”?

March 03, 2009 | Thyrl Nelson

Forget about your own feelings for a minute. If you were new Ravens Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison, would you see Ray Lewis as a vital part of maintaining the Ravens defensive “system”? Or would you see him as a potential obstacle in trying to implement your own system, and establish control of the locker room?


In the wake of all of the news, rumor, speculation and pseudo-controversy surrounding the free agency of Ray Lewis, the fan base seems to be split down the middle on the issue of bringing him back. The question is; what do John Harbaugh and Greg Mattison want?


On offense the Ravens have been an adventure from season to season and even from game to game, but they do appear to have made some strides there. On defense though, there’s been a system in place, almost for as long as Ravens football has been around. There are few teams if any, that can boast the defensive consistency of the Ravens over the past decade or so.


That system seemed to get the most out of players. Time and again, we’ve seen players who flourished here leave and go elsewhere for big paydays and visions of glory, and time and again, the result has been the same. You could say that the result has been similar for coaches who’ve left here too. For whatever reason though, no matter who was running the show, and who was out on the field, the Ravens defense simply always seemed to rise to the occasion.


Never though, has the defense changed as drastically in a single year, as it has in this off-season, even if they do manage to retain Ray Lewis. Lewis and Chris McAlister have both been hallmarks of the defense, for as long as the Ravens have boasted a system, those two have been a part of it. At times, the system has survived without either in the lineup due to injuries, but the prospect of going forward without both could be a big blow for the system.


Still, there will be plenty of veteran stars left on that side of the ball next season. In Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs & Haloti Ngata, the Ravens still have players that have evolved with the system, and there are plenty of other vets on that side of the ball still likely to come back. So in terms of personnel, the system should still be able to survive.


In the coaching ranks though, the promotion of Greg Mattison to defensive co-coordinator, represents a dramatic shift in the practice that has worked so well for the Ravens on defense. Mattison was technically promoted from within, but he’s only had one season here. Was he absorbing the nuisances of the system during that time, or simply toeing the line and biding his time until he could take up residence in Rex’s office, and implement his system?


Mike Nolan only had one season here too before being promoted to defensive coordinator, and that was as a wide receivers coach, so Mattison’s situation isn’t totally unprecedented. But in Nolan’s case, I only seem to remember Jack Del Rio leaving at the same time as Marvin Lewis; so much of the defensive staff remained intact. These Ravens have changed a number of coaches over the last 2 seasons. And even then, the changes that Nolan implemented defensively, while effective, didn’t exactly sit well with some of the players. Nolan’s transition certainly wasn’t the smoothest.


Okay, lesson learned; the next time around, the Ravens promoted Ryan, who had been with the team forever by then. Out of Ryan and Mike Singletary, who Nolan was allowed to take with him, Ryan was certainly the better candidate to take the Ravens’ defensive reigns at that time.


If maintaining the system were a priority for the Ravens, then Mike Pettine would have likely been the most logical candidate to take over the Ravens’ defense. Given his choice though, there’s little doubt that Pettine wanted to go with Rex, and help him to try and bring the system to New York.


Mattison, for me, represents the real beginning of the Harbaugh era. I give him full credit for what he was able to accomplish last season, and all of the accolades that go with it. But in Mattison, Harbaugh now has his guy, taking the keys to the Bentley. The fans after all, have come to expect a lot on that side of the ball. They practically demand it. Mattison is definitely moving right into the line of fire. If he succeeds, he’ll likely be able to follow the same paths as Lewis, Nolan and Ryan before him. If he fails though, the backlash will be off the charts.


Greg Mattison could see Ray Lewis as the guy who can help to carry some of that old dominant defensive swagger into his system. On the other hand, he could view him as the single biggest obstacle preventing him from being the real leader of that defense. My guess is that which side of that argument Mattison falls on will have everything to do with whether or not Ray Lewis is back.


Which came first, the system or the talent? And will the Ravens have enough of either left to maintain the defensive reputation going forward? Those are the questions that Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh will have to come up with the difficult answers to over the next few days and weeks. And whether or not those decision were right, may not be realized for years to come. Either way, it’s been a rough couple of weeks for the system.