As brash and bold as ever, Rex Ryan can talk the talk with any NFL head coach who has ever donned the headset. But Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs takes a back seat to no one in terms of self-confidence, self-expression and big-game buildup. And that's just one of the many reasons Sunday night's reunion-themed matchup between the Jets and Ravens makes for the NFL's centerpiece showdown of Week 4.
On one sideline will be Ryan, the Jets' proud and loud third-year head coach, who'll be making his first trip to Baltimore in the regular season since spending 10 mostly successful years there as a Ravens defensive assistant (1999-2008). On the other side will be Suggs, fellow Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and all the other defensive Ravens who once took their marching orders from the man who is now New York's round mound of sound.
"We loved him when he was here,'' Suggs said Wednesday, in a lunch-hour phone interview. "Him and [current Jets defensive coordinator and ex-Ravens outside linebackers coach] Mike Pettine are responsible for a lot of guys here and what they've done in their careers, mine included. I love playing against Rex, because I think he gets to see his finest work up close. If he's Michelangelo, I was his Sistine Chapel. He gets to see what he created. He gets to coach against the very beast, the monster, he helped create.''
I love a good Sistine Chapel reference dropped seamlessly into a football story as much as the next guy, so at that point I just tried to keep Suggs rolling, asking if he and his teammates ever let themselves wonder what might have been had Baltimore elevated Ryan from defensive coordinator to head coach rather than hire John Harbaugh in early 2008?
"The first year we did, when he was still here (as Harbaugh's defensive coordinator),'' Suggs admitted. "We thought about it, what if Rex was the coach? But he's not, so we got over it pretty quick. But yeah, we all knew he was going to be a great head coach. You can see how his guys love him, and how guys are always trying to line up to play for him.
"We feel as though he left prematurely. But he had to do what was best for him and his family. He always wanted to be a head coach, but we felt he left while there was still work to be done. He left the job undone, and that was winning a Super Bowl. And now he's trying to do it with somebody else, and we're taking kind of offense to that.''
The Jets and Ravens (both 2-1) have every right to sprinkle Super Bowl references into their pregame hype. After all, New York has made the past two AFC title games since Ryan arrived, and Harbaugh has led Baltimore to the playoffs in all three of his seasons with the Ravens, with New York and Baltimore each producing a league-best four postseason road victories over that span. The goal this year in both cities is clear-cut: Beating out the behemoths from New England and Pittsburgh, respectively, and finally forego the wild-card route in the playoffs in favor of division titles and higher seeds in the AFC postseason field.
The Ravens already have taken a step toward that reality, embarrassing Pittsburgh 35-7 in their regular-season opener in Baltimore. The Jets, who are in the middle leg of a demanding three-game road trip, get their first shot at the Patriots next week in Foxboro. But first, the Ravens must be confronted, and Ryan would dearly love to pay them back for beating his Jets 10-9 in last year's season opener, a game that saw New York gallingly fail to score a touchdown and amass just 176 yards of offense in its regular-season debut at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
"It'll be a physical game again,'' said Suggs, the pass-rushing star and ninth-year veteran who played the first six seasons of his NFL career on a defense that Ryan helped coach. "But we've got the advantage that we're at M&T [Bank Stadium]. So it's going to be a fight.''
The Ravens enter the fight with a sense of momentum generated by last Sunday's impressive 37-7 dismantling of the Rams in St. Louis, giving them victories by 28 and 30 points in the season's first three weeks. Baltimore is suddenly an offensive power, rolling up a franchise-best 553 yards of offense against the Rams, with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing for a career-high 389 yards, including three eye-popping first-quarter touchdowns to rookie receiver Torrey Smith (who made his first five NFL receptions for 152 yards and those three scores).
The Jets, by comparison, are reeling in the wake of Week's 3 results. First they got rolled in Oakland by a resurgent Raiders team that ran for 234 yards and four touchdowns in its 34-24 win -- the most rushing yards by far that Ryan's Jets have allowed in his 41-game New York tenure -- and then they got filleted in the media by Jets legend Joe Namath, who suggested that Ryan's penchant for singing the praises of his own players has left them overconfident and under-prepared.
That's a subjective case to make, but New York left itself open to criticism of some sort after the debacle against the Raiders. The Jets run defense, one of the supposed strengths of the team, is ranked 31st overall (136.7-yard average), and has allowed an NFL-worst five rushing touchdowns. New York's own identity as a run-first team out of the "Ground and Pound'' mold seemed laughable, given Oakland out-rushed New York by 134 yards.
Ryan likely isn't stroking his players all that much this week, but Suggs both saw and benefited from Ryan's tendency to build up his guys' self-esteem. But at the same time, he said without Ryan's demanding style and sense of discipline he would not have developed into the Pro Bowl level-linebacker he has been for most of his career.
"He's a player's coach, no doubt,'' Suggs said. "He'll stick his neck out for you, and he's going to put you in the best position to win. I'm going to be totally honest with you. When I first got to Baltimore [in 2003], he was my coach, and all I wanted to do was just sack quarterbacks. I didn't want to do none of the physical stuff, and he told me that's not an option here. If you're going to play on this Ravens defense and wear a Ravens decal, you're going to be one tough SOB, and he turned me into one. Like I said, I credit the man a lot for my career, him and Mike Pettine. He helped me learn how to be a pro. He taught me about responsibility and how to be a guy to not let the defense down.''
Suggs is off to one of the most dominant, playmaking starts of his career, with four sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in Baltimore's three games. And this is the kind of spotlight game he loves to take center stage in. Besides Ryan, his spotlight-loving former coach, Suggs will be competing against three ex-Ravens-turned-Jets: linebacker Bart Scott, receiver Derrick Mason and safety Jim Leonhard. But he knows where the story this week starts, and it's on Ryan's return.
"Oh, definitely Rex loves this,'' Suggs said of the pre-game focus on Ryan. "He demands a certain kind of presence, a certain kind of attention, and what better city to do it in than New York? It wasn't a surprise to me how he's been with the Jets. I knew once he got his opportunity he was going to explode with it, and that's what he did.''
As long as Ryan and Suggs are involved, you know the talk won't even end with the game's final whistle. One team's going to be 3-1, the other 2-2, but both will have something to say about it. That's a given.
"When we beat the Jets, I'm going to give Rex a hug and a kiss,'' Suggs said. "And then I'm going to kiss Bart [Scott], and hug Bart. And then I'm going to Disney World, because it's our bye week.''