The parallels can be seen all over the field. The Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets, who will clash in primetime tonight at M&T Bank Stadium, are both built upon the strength of their defenses. The footprints that Rex Ryan left behind as the former defensive coordinator in Baltimore have not washed away, as his presence is still felt among the Ravens defenders.
When he signed on to be the head coach of the Jets in 2009, Ryan brought with him his defensive philosophies, in addition to some of his players. S Jim Leonhard and LB Bart Scott both departed Baltimore to sign with the Jets as free agents, and current defensive coordinator Mike Pettine left his role as Ravens outside linebackers coach to join Ryan's staff. This August, WR Derrick Mason also left Baltimore to join the Jets.
Ryan and Pettine led the Ravens defense from 2005-08, during which time the Ravens ranked second in total yards, rushing yards and points allowed. Since joining the Jets in 2009, the two have built a unit that was ranked first in total defense in 2009 and third in 2010.
The Ravens, under coordinator Chuck Pagano, have continued their legacy after Ryan and Pettine left, ranking third in total defense in 2009 and 10th last year.
"This is one of the best groups we'll face all year, a physical group," said QB Mark Sanchez. "They've played together for a long time, so this is probably one of the best teams we'll play."
The difficulty of the Jets' schedule has been well documented, and they are in the middle of a three-game road trip that started with a loss Oakland and will end next week in New England. Focusing on the task at hand, the Ravens present enough of a challenge to occupy the minds of the Jets for now.
"You've got to stay patient," said RB LaDainian Tomlinson. "They're a good defense. Some of the blitzes they have, they overload stuff to one side, sometimes leave the middle of the field wide open and blitz from the edge. Obviously, that's because they're influenced by Rex."
Rebounding from the Raiders
While Ryan has become the model of defensive consistency, last week his group suffered a setback, surrendering 234 rushing yards to the Oakland Raiders. It was a performance that dropped the Jets from the fifth rated run defense to the 31st.
"Overall, it was not up to our standards by any stretch," said Ryan, who has had only three weeks in which the defense he was involved with was ranked in the low 20s in his 13 seasons as an NFL coach. "So it doesn't sit too well with me or anybody in this organization. But the good news is we get to play Sunday."
The defense will have an opportunity to amend for its West Coast showing, but a daunting opponent stands in its way. Led by RB Ray Rice, the Ravens are averaging 127.7 yards per game on the ground, good enough for eighth in the NFL. Rice is difficult to defend, blending the quickness and cutback ability of a 5'8" speedster with the power of a 212-pounder.
"He's smaller, but he's tough to get down," said LB David Harris. "And he's a good receiver out of the backfield so you always have to keep your eyes open."
With 14 receptions this season, Rice is tied for the team lead with WR Anquan Boldin and tied for second among all AFC tailbacks. Defending him is a tall order for the Jets defense, but one they do not shy away from.
"I don't think we're the 31st run defense in the league," said LB Bart Scott. "But that's what our stats are, so I guess we are. But we know we're better than that."
The outspoken Scott spent seven seasons in Baltimore, but this week his focus has not wavered from stopping the Ravens. He had no intentions to wax nostalgic about his time spent in Charm City.
"I mean, I don't know half the people over there anymore," said Scott. "In three years there has been a lot of turnover. What's more important is winning our division and getting back on track, as opposed to being worried about silly stuff like that."
Strong as Always Up the Middle
While the Ravens have had significant personnel turnover since Scott left, the keystone combination of S Ed Reed and LB Ray Lewis remain intact. The two are former All-Pros and are safe bets to eventually be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.
"The thing about Ed is he'll make you pay," said Ryan. "You make a mistake, he'll make you pay almost every single time. He's as instinctive a football player as I've ever been around. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, in my opinion."
With 56 career interceptions, six returned for TDs, Reed is one of the most feared safeties in the league. Add to that the tenacious style of Lewis, and the Ravens have defense full of attitude, athleticism and ability.
"We know what they bring, they know what we bring," said Lewis. "But I think the game always overrides all of whatever trash-talking is going to be done. We know each other very well. Who was once over here is over there now. It has natural fire by itself."
Lewis is right. There is no lack of storylines heading into tonight's matchup. As the game unfolds, questions will be answered and new issues will arise.
For Ryan and his staff, much of the focus this week has been on the defense, but nothing less than a complete performance will earn the Green & White a victory in Maryland.
"If we're going to win this game, we'd better be at our best in all phases because if you're not, you're going to get beat," said Ryan, adding that on opening day, "They absolutely smashed Pittsburgh. We don't want that to happen to us, so we'd better be there."