Ryan, Schwartz have no need to be defensive about ability to lead

The NFL playoffs can serve as an audition of sorts for assistant coaches who are candidates for head-coaching jobs.

Two of the league's most highly regarded assistants, Rex Ryan and Jim Schwartz, will be on the same stage when the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans meet in Saturday's divisional-round game in Nashville, Tenn.

Ryan is finishing his fourth season as defensive coordinator for the Ravens and 10th year with Baltimore. Schwartz is completing his eighth year as defensive coordinator for the Titans and 10th overall with Tennessee.

As dominant as their respective defenses have been through the years, it's a wonder that neither is an NFL head coach by now. But the postseason could go a long way to changing that.

For instance, Ryan's defense has already grabbed a great deal of attention after forcing five turnovers in a wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins, who had NFL record-low 13 turnovers during the regular season. Chad Pennington, who had thrown only seven interceptions in 16 games, was picked off four times. The Ravens will look to have the same sort of success against the Titans, who also have a highly efficient offense. During the regular season, Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins threw only seven interceptions and was sacked a mere eight times.

Schwartz's defense played a major role in allowing the Titans to finish with an NFL-best 13-3 record. His challenge Saturday is stopping the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack and generating enough pressure to rattle rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who showed exceptional poise all season and in the wild-card game.

Aggressive, innovative thinker

"You can look at any game that my guys are out there on the field, and I think they represent me -- who I am, what I stand for," Ryan said.

This is who Ryan is: a highly aggressive and innovative thinker who always believes in turning up the heat on the opposing quarterback in every way imaginable. This is what he stands for: whatever it takes to win.

A classic example of his creativity came during the wild-card game at Miami, when 6-foot-4, 345-pound Haloti Ngata suddenly vacated his usual spot at nose tackle and wound up at middle linebacker.

"What happens when you do that is you're putting pressure on the opposition," Ryan said. "Because now, if they are just looking at that front as a 3-4 front, then he might be identified as a linebacker. And when that happens, now we can get Haloti on a running back, so if we blitz a 350-pound linebacker, a running back has to try to block him.

"We do that stuff all over the place. We can take corners and have them rush. We can drop out on the nose tackle and blitz a corner (through the middle). And we're not scared to overload a whole side (to rush the passer). We always say, 'Don't let the only limitations your players have be you as a coach.'"

Ryan has long preached the "KILL" philosophy of teaching: Keep it likeable and learnable. He makes certain that every member of the defense knows everyone else's responsibilities. That way, players become interchangeable and opponents have a harder time figuring out who and what is coming their way from one game, or snap, to the next.

This applies to backups as well as superstars such as linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed.

"If you dress, you're going to have some role for us, in some capacity," Ryan said. "The players really buy into it, they take ownership in it. It's great when you can say to a Ray Lewis, 'Ray, you're going to have to eat up these two (blockers) so (outside linebacker) Jarret Johnson has a chance to be free or be one-on-one.' Ray Lewis, a first-ballot Hall of Fame guy, is willing to sacrifice for a lesser-known player, although Jarret's an excellent player in his own right. But it could be any player, and those guys will make that sacrifice on anything that we call."

A defense for every offense

The Titans defense has its share of big-name players, such as tackle Albert Haynesworth and linebacker Keith Bulluck. But the Titans' scheme isn't quite as complex as the Ravens' scheme.

Schwartz takes advantage of players who have the skills to adapt to the various schemes they face, as well as the intelligence and discipline to keep mistakes to a minimum.

"In our division, you have to be able to go play the Colts and their stretch run game and Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison," Schwartz said. "And then you've got to turn around the next week and you've got to play a smash-mouth game against Jacksonville, with heavy double-teams and things like that.

"The thing that helps us out the most is we have guys that are multidimensional. Our corners (Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper) are really good tacklers and they can play man and zone. Both of our safeties (Michael Griffin and Chris Hope) can be an in-the-box safety and also be a deep safety. Our linebackers are good against the pass and against the run. Our D-line can rush the passer, but they can also stop the run.

"That's what allows you not so much to be creative but to be consistent from week to week."

Waiting for the opportunity

It figures that, at some point, Schwartz and Ryan should get a head-coaching opportunity. Why hasn't it happened yet? Different theories have been kicked around in league circles.

The most common regarding Schwartz is that he is hampered by the fact that the Titans' renowned head coach, Jeff Fisher, is a former defensive coordinator. How much of the credit for the defensive success goes to Schwartz and how much goes to Fisher?

The fact is, Fisher trusts Schwartz to run the scheme without interference because he believes in Schwartz's abilities and knows that they have a shared vision that is reflected in game-planning and play-calling.

"I've been around the league for a long time and I'm very comfortable in my own skin," said Schwartz, who has coached in the NFL for 16 seasons. "If somebody wants to perceive that (he doesn't have a major coaching role in the success of the Titans' defense), they don't know what's going on. There have been defensive coaches from Bill Belichick that moved on, and it hasn't hampered their (ability to become head coaches). A lot of offensive assistants, who went onto become head coaches, came from Bill Walsh's staff. You stand on your own merits in this league."

The rap on Ryan is that he doesn't come off as being particularly polished in interviews. He has the bold and brash personality of his father, former NFL coach Buddy Ryan. The same goes for his twin brother, Rob, who has also been the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders and is in line to fill the same job with the Cleveland Browns.

But Rex Ryan makes it clear that his style of coaching is going to be as subtle as a punch in the mouth.

"I'm not blessed with a silver tongue," said Ryan, who has coached in the NFL for 12 years. "I don't think I'm going to wow anybody in an interview. I'm just going to be myself and hopefully that's good enough to get a job. I understand a great responsibility that a head coach has to (represent) an organization, and to be considered in that light is really special to me.

"But I want to become a head coach because I think I can do a great job."

Have a question for Vic? Send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best ones will be answered on NFL.com.

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