For the Ravens, it’s a simple equation.
They’ve combined one of the league’s best defenses with a relentless rushing attack and a productive quarterback to equal success in the National Football League.
It certainly worked last year when the Ravens transformed into a squad that was a victory away from the Super Bowl after winning just five games in 2007.
It’s also a formula the Ravens believe can get them to the game’s biggest stage this year—even if their defense is going to be run by Greg Mattison, who has just one season of NFL coaching experience.
“We’re still the Ravens, right?” Coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re always trying to get better. I think even with the guys who have been here in the past, we see differences. Individual players have improved; the scheme has improved.”
Last season, the Ravens won more games than any team in league history that had a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco). They used the simple scheme of running the ball to control the clock to back a defense that held the opposition to an average of just 15.2 points per game, third-fewest in the NFL.
So don’t expect the Ravens to change much of their playbook, though Harbaugh had to replace Rex Ryan, one of the league’s top defensive coordinators, who was hired as head coach by the New York Jets.
Mattison was the team’s linebackers coach last year, but arrived in Baltimore having worked as a successful defensive coordinator at college powers Michigan, Notre Dame, and most recently, Florida, where he won a national title in 2006.
“Greg is a guy that I have full trust and belief in, and not just because of his track record,” Harbaugh said. “He's been successful at every stop, but the job he did this year with our guys, I think he established himself as a premier coach in the NFL.”
Mattison takes over a defense that emerged as one of the league’s best since Ryan replaced Mike Nolan after he was hired as head coach by San Francisco in 2004. In the past four seasons, the Ravens never finished lower than sixth in yards allowed.
The Ravens allowed 261 yards per game last year, which only trailed Pittsburgh (237). The Ravens, however, led the league with 34 takeaways and three players recorded at least 100 tackles: Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs.
“You have to be an attacking defense,” Mattison said. “Obviously, that’s been the M.O. of the defense here for years. In looking at what we do defensively, we don’t plan on changing a great deal. It’s not broken, by any means.”
Vic Fangio, who spent the past three seasons as special assistant to the head coach, was promoted to linebackers coach. Fangio, who has coached for 24 seasons in the NFL, has served as defensive coordinator for three teams—Panthers, Colts and Texans—for a total of 11 years.
Offensively, the Ravens signed Kelley Washington to bolster one of the league’s worst receiving units. At 35, Derrick Mason still is the team’s unquestioned leader after making 80 catches for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns.
Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams—the team’s next best receivers—collectively made 54 receptions for 875 yards and four touchdowns.
Washington, who has caught 20 passes for 219 and a pair of touchdowns the past three seasons combined, also will contend for a roster spot with Yamon Figurs and Marcus Smith—a duo who combined for one catch last year.
“We’re playing chess here—this isn’t checkers—and I understand that,” said Cam Cameron, the team’s offensive coordinator. We have to give our players more tools, scheme-wise, to work with. And then we’ve got to master the fundamentals of those plays.”
Harbaugh added: "We have good players playing wide receiver. I guess people can write and believe what they want, but watch them play."
Last year, the receivers were overshadowed by a rushing game that had a league-high 592 carries, making it clear that Flacco didn't need to throw the ball frequently for the Ravens to be successful.
When Flacco threw the ball at least 30 times last season, the Ravens went 0-4. But when he threw fewer than 30 times, they were 13-2.
"We’ve done everything we can possibly do since last January to improve every part of our team," Harbaugh said. "To me, we’re as far along as we could possibly be today. It’s not complex."