Ravens' Nolan institutes aggressive approach

WESTMINSTER -- Those intricate strategies and blitz packages designed by Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan are generated on his office computer. <br><br> However, the general philosophy supporting his ideas is built around a far more primal approach than analyzing coded data and statistical tendencies: Beat the offense to the point of attack. Sprint to the football and arrive in a bad mood. Take the football away and score.<br><br>

"We're always playing at a fast tempo," said Nolan, 45, the son of former San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints head coach Dick Nolan. "I think we're an excellent tackling team. I think it's a very aggressive style. We don't wait for things to happen to us. We're dictating our identity to our opponents: tackling and tempo and playing as one."

During Nolan's second season running the defense since the departure of Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, the Ravens ranked third in the league in total defense and won the AFC North title.

The Ravens led the NFL in sacks with 47 and were atop the AFC with 17 fumble recoveries. They finished second in the league with 41 turnovers and allowed 281 points.

"I think a lot of what we did is directly attributable to Mike's passion and knowledge for the game," said inside linebackers coach Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Chicago Bears. "He puts a lot of time into what he's doing. The thing I like the best is how he sets the defense up to excel. Mike's not going to put a great player where he's not in a position to use his talents. We want to be the best defense ever."

Dovetailed with the progress made over the last two seasons, Nolan's recognition factor during his fourth defensive coordinator position has grown. Nolan, 45, was named the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year by Football Digest.

"I like what Mike Nolan is doing with that defense," Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "It's obvious to me from watching film that he gets his guys to play extremely hard for him, and he's bold about forcing the quarterback to make mistakes. It's smart football."

The evolution of the Ravens' 3-4 defense centered around All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis' return from a shoulder injury and a franchise-record 225 tackles last season. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and led all linebackers with a personal-best six interceptions.

It followed a switch two years ago from Marvin Lewis' 4-3 scheme, a move Nolan instituted because of the Ravens' wealth of qualified linebackers and a defensive line that lacks a superstar.

"Mike is an energy guy," linebacker Cornell Brown said. "He's intense and he always has something to give you at every position. We like how aggressive his game plans are. We get after people."

The Ravens' 3-4 alignment has involved fitting the system to the personnel, rather than vice versa. Rather than deploy NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Terrell Suggs at his natural defensive end position, the 21-year-old was converted to outside linebacker and generated a dozen sacks to lead the team. Now, he's become an every-down linebacker.

Pro Bowl selection Peter Boulware and Adalius Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound Pro Bowl special teams ace, are two other mobile outside linebackers who used to play with their hands down in the dirt.

"It's the players who have made this defense," Nolan said. "We felt like these moves were best suited for those guys. A.D. wasn't big enough to be an end all of the time. We've tried to tailor the system to the players in our transition to a 3-4. Being so multiple out of it, we do a lot of things to utilize their strengths."

Lewis, Boulware, Thomas, safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister all made the Pro Bowl last season. The Ravens allowed the fewest yards per play (4.2), tied for fourth in the NFL with 24 interceptions and had the fourth-best rushing defense and the sixth-ranked pass defense.

The team ranked sixth in average points allowed.

"The value of statistics is they do give you a picture to measure how you play the game," Nolan said. "They give you an indication of where you're strong and where you're weak. We're not chasing the statistics, but when you're good the stats kind of follow you."

Nolan lettered three times as a safety at Oregon before being cut by the Denver Broncos in 1981. After that brief NFL stint, Dan Reeves hired him for his Broncos' staff six years later as a special teams coach and a defensive assistant.

Since then, Nolan has been a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants (1993-1996), Washington Redskins (1997-1999) and the New York Jets (2000). He joined the Ravens in 2001 as the wide receivers coach and was promoted after Lewis left to join the Redskins.

"I've been around a lot of great people like Dan Reeves and George Young and now here with Brian Billick and Ozzie Newsome," Nolan said. "I've learned a lot from them all."

Nolan had a few discussions with Bears general manager Jerry Angelo last winter about the Bears' job that went to Lovie Smith.

He was earmarked by a few publications this summer as possessing the big-picture qualities and coaching acumen of a future NFL head coach.

"Under the right circumstances, yes, that's exactly what I want to do," Nolan said. "I've also been in this long enough to know the importance of being somewhere you enjoy. This is one of those places. Obviously if I was to pursue that goal, I would have to go elsewhere and think a lot about where I'm going. I like the job I have."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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