Chuck Pagano once challenged one of his biggest linebackers at East Carolina to an impromptu wrestling match, offering to excuse the entire position group from running sprints if he lost. In roughly five seconds, the future Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator had wrapped up a 6-foot-4, 230-pound NFL prospect into a small package he couldn't escape. Somewhat embarrassed at being rudely taken down to the ground, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jerry Dillon was in full equipment at the time except for his helmet.
When Pagano was a 155-pound safety at Wyoming many years ago, he built a reputation as an intimidating hitter by launching his undersized frame into much larger players.
Now, Pagano is bringing that aggressiveness to the Ravens' vaunted defense after being tabbed this offseason to succeed Greg Mattison as the new defensive boss in Baltimore.
Where Mattison was regarded as more conservative than the hair-on-fire approach of Rex Ryan, Pagano is regarded as somewhere closer to Ryan in terms of temperament and aggressiveness.
"I think coach has his own swag to him," Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think this is our first Italian defensive coordinator. So, it's going to be fun. We like the aggressiveness that the coach portrays at times, and we like the smartness that he portrays at times. So, I think he's got his own swag and his own two shoes and it's going to be great for the city of Baltimore."
Promoted from secondary coach, Pagano takes over a defense that ranked 10th in total defense last season, fifth in rushing defense and 21st in pass defense.
Known for hurling his headset or hat when things go wrong, Pagano has the fiery attitude that players respect.
"Chuck's one of those coaches who gets after you, but you always have the ultimate respect for him," Johnson said. "The sidelines always get heated. When somebody is fiery and aggressive and has a similar personality as we do, we love it. With his personality, his knowledge of schemes, we're definitely going to be aggressive."
Pagano has no intentions of coaching from the booth. He'll be on the sidelines with his guys, mixing it up.
And he has every ambition of taking the Ravens' defense to an even higher level of intensity.
"I just told them that when people put on our tape it ought to look like we've got 13, 14, 15 guys out there," Pagano said. "We've got a smart football team, a team that doesn't beat itself, plays with great fundamentals and technique, plays with passion, most tackling team in the NFL, most physical, can just dominate people. When we walk out of that tunnel or out of that locker room, we expect to shut people out and just play great defense."
Pagano's primary challenge is upgrading a pass rush that dipped to a franchise-worst 27 sacks last season.
Too often, the Ravens would play coverage schemes, rush three people or four and not strike fear in quarterbacks' hearts.
Another area the Ravens need to improve is holding a fourth quarter lead. Despite going 12-4 in the regular season, they were outscored 119-80 in the fourth quarter.
It was a far cry from the organized chaos preached by Ryan during the Ravens' defensive heyday.
And Pagano reminds some of Ryan's biggest zealots of the former Ravens defensive coordinator and bombastic New York Jets coach.
"I really like his mentality," Johnson said. "I would say he's more toward Rex's style, a little more emotional probably. Coach Mattison always kept a level head. You know Rex would get pissed off and bring the house. And I think he would be somewhere in the middle. His coaching knowledge and just the way you relate to him, it's awesome."
Rather than pursuing a former NFL head coach like Dave Wannstedt or Eric Mangini or promoting linebackers coach and former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees or defensive coordinator Clarence Brooks. Harbaugh opted to go with Pagano as a rookie NFL defensive coordinator.
The roots of that decision lie in Pagano's hard-nosed approach to football, which makes him a kindred spirit to Harbaugh.
"Any coach will imprint his personality on a group, and Chuck has a great personality," Harbaugh said. "He has confidence and he has just always been that way. He really has a lot of fun out there, yet he is also very detailed in what he does.
"I expect our defense to play that way. They are going to play confident, but they are going to be detailed. They are going to play really hard, and they are going to be reckless in the best sense of the word. I'm excited about what our defense is building."
A former University of North Carolina defensive coordinator, Pagano has coached in Baltimore for three seasons. During that span, the pass defense ranks eighth overall and Baltimore has intercepted 67 passes to rank second in the league with opposing quarterbacks generating only a 69.9 passer rating.
"They've been playing great defense here long before any of us got here, and they'll be playing great defense long after I'm gone," Pagano said. "They've always been an attacking, swarming, tough, physical, hard-nosed group of men that has great passion. And so my philosophy is their philosophy. Let's go out and wreak havoc and play Ravens defense, just the way they've played for many, many years around here."
Last season, the Ravens intercepted 19 passes and finished third in scoring defense as they allowed just 16.9 points per contest.
Respected highly by key players like middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, whom he coached and recruited to the University of Miami, Pagano is expected to cut the Ravens loose to be themselves.
"I know the guys, they know me, they know my personality," Pagano said. "I know their personality, so it was an easy transition."
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