OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — In his first season as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, Chuck Pagano has built an aggressive unit that reflects everything he’s learned over a 27-year career as an assistant coach.
Baltimore owns the NFL’s third-ranked defensive unit, leads the AFC in sacks and is tied for third in points allowed (16.9 per game).
But the Ravens are coming off a miserable performance last Sunday in San Diego, a game in which the Chargers scored on their first five possessions and never punted in a 34-14 rout.
“It’s the NFL. It can be very humbling,” Pagano said Wednesday. “That’s why you take it week to week. Keep it on the highway, we say. Never too high and never too low. We know we’ve got to get over it and move on.”
Pagano and the Ravens (10-4) have turned their attention toward beating Cleveland (4-10) on Saturday to stay on course to win the AFC North.
“There were spots where I could have done a better job in helping these guys out,” he said. “So we go back to work and fix the things that needed to be fixed.”
After spending three years working with the Ravens secondary, Pagano, 51, took command of the defense in January after Greg Mattison left to become defensive coordinator at Michigan.
Pagano calls his new post “a dream come true.”
“If you ask anyone given this opportunity, they’d tell you the same thing,” he said. “We’ve got great assistant coaches, great guys to work with, great players, great leadership, a great organization. I was just in the right place at the right time. I’m very fortunate.
“It’s been more highs than lows and it’s been exciting watching these guys play. It’s been a great experience to this point, but our goal is to get to (Indianapolis, site of the Super Bowl) and be the No. 1 defense in the league. If we don’t accomplish that, it will be a disappointing year as far as I’m concerned.”
Perhaps, but no one in the locker room would blame Pagano if the Ravens fall short of expectations.
“I love playing for coach. I have a ton of respect for the dude,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “He definitely gave us our swagger back. He’s a very good chess player. You got to win the chess match. You got to be a strategist. Chuck’s been doing a good job.”
Pagano broke into the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at Southern California in 1984. He has studied the art of defense for well over two decades, knowledge that enabled him to come up with a multitude of alignments that turned this Baltimore defense into a swarming, unpredictable and relentless crew.
“Chuck is unorthodox,” Suggs said. “He’s like The Joker. You never really expect what he’s going to do, and everything has a motive.”
His players consider Pagano to be just one of the guys.
“What makes him good? He relates to the players a whole lot,” Ravens defensive end Cory Redding said. “He’s almost like a player in a D-coordinator’s position. The guy has so much fun with us. He treats you like more than a player. It’s like we’re his sons. He wants us to do well. He keeps it fresh. He knows everybody’s strengths and puts them in position to make plays.”
With the exception of Mattison, every previous Ravens defensive coordinator has gone on to become an NFL head coach. Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan made the step up, and it’s quite possible Pagano may one day follow suit.
“Absolutely,” Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger said. “Chuck has a leadership quality about him. He’s humble but he also knows when to take the reins and take charge. He doesn’t try to dominate you in every meeting. He’s just a coach that knows exactly how players are and what direction they need. He’s a hell of a coach and I really think he’ll be a head coach one day.”
Pagano has been thinking of that moment since he was a young boy.
“When I was a kid growing up, my dad being a football coach, he asked the same question of all the assistants that he ever hired: `Is your goal to be a head football coach?’ He always said if somebody had answered him, `Not really, I’m OK just being a position coach,’ then I don’t think he really wanted him on his staff,” Pagano said. “Because he wanted ambitious guys.
“I think if you ask anybody they’d say yeah. That would be something you always work for and toward. But for now, my focus and our focus is on the Cleveland Browns. Period.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)