- On paper, Baltimore’s defense doesn’t appear to have much going for it—the best players are aging, and there are no immediate rising stars. But on the field, it’s clear that Don Martindale has built one of the NFL’s most unique defenses.
Tyreek Hill goes into motion, jetting from left to right in front of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his anti-aircraft gun of an arm. Motion confuses and creates mismatches, which make the hairs on the back of a defensive coordinator’s neck stand up. Hill is a mismatch unto himself.
But Don “Wink” Martindale is calm. The Ravens defensive coordinator doesn’t have a pass rusher with more than 8.5 sacks, and he doesn't have a hyper-athletic, shutdown corner capable of mirroring Hill’s every movement. There's some young talent, but three of his most important starters are on the wrong side of 30.
What Martindale does have is the most unique defense in the NFL, with 33-year-old safety Eric Weddle—somehow now hitting his prime—running it to near perfection.
“He’s got that Magic Johnson, point-guard ability to put everyone in the right spot,” Martindale says of Weddle. “If he wants to be a head coach some day he will be. He's basically a coach on the field; he’s a football savant.”
Back to Tyreek Hill.
It’s Week 14 and Hill’s in motion. Cornerback Brandon Carr was supposed to be blitzing, but now he's trailing Hill. Weddle is responsible for the hook-curl in front of the space Hill vacated. He makes a diagnosis: With a few brief commands, he puts Carr in the hook-curl, sends a linebacker on a blitz and takes the Hill post route himself. The blitz gets home, Hill is covered, and Mahomes throws incomplete. Over the course of the game, Hill will get his, and so will Mahomes, but the Ravens hold the Chiefs to their second-lowest scoring total of the season, ultimately losing 27-24 in overtime.
Baltimore finished the season with the top defense in yards allowed and No. 2 in points, which propelled the team to the AFC North crown—and they did it like nobody else in today's NFL. They’ve done it with the Cover 3 zone blitz, a Ravens staple that has taken on new, outsized importance in 2018. While Baltimore has struggled to manufacture sacks with simple four-man rushes, and failed to generate many turnovers (ranking No. 22 in the league), they’ve limited nine of 16 opponents to fewer than 300 yards of offense and 20 points.
It’s what Martindale, his defensive staff, head coach John Harbaugh and Weddle set out to accomplish this offseason: Make the defense so simple and easy to communicate that they could call it on the fly, and, with numerous disguises, make it look complicated as hell.
“The biggest thing is we stripped everything down from before,” says Martindale, who took over the job in 2018 after six seasons as Baltimore’s linebackers coach.
All six seasons were spent under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and the verbiage was extensive. It wasn’t as flexible as it needed to be once NFL teams like the Rams, Chiefs and Eagles began employing pre-snap motion on a plurality of plays and used one-word play-calls to increase tempo. It had to be streamlined, and someone smart had to run it on the field.
“We took all the different terms and simplified it,” Martindale says. “Before it was like being in Spanish class, but for some reason there's a chapter on Chinese and another chapter on French. All we did was put it all in English. We really rely on those veterans. It’s an elegant simplicity to us. We have pressure off of motion. Field and boundary.
“You’ve got to have guys like Weddle, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley to run this package. We couldn’t do half this stuff without those guys. The whole package itself is unique for two reasons. The players we have running it. It’s a great chemistry in the room. We talk things out in the room, and it becomes easier to make adjustments on the sidelines.”
Suggs and Mosley are responsible in large part for the operation of the defensive line and linebackers, and Weddle is responsible for making sure the whole package is in sync—that's why he's spent significantly more time outside of the box and off the ball this season than in years past. Workdays in Owings Mills have become football summits, with the Ravens encountering unique offensive offerings in film and making up new rules as they go. In conversations that typically involve secondary coach Chris Hewitt, coaching analyst Jesse Minter and Martindale, among others, Weddle will often propose deceptive ways to approach new problems, and the staff will debate and decide.
“I think this is the most diverse defense I’ve been on,” says Weddle, a seven-time Pro Bowler who joined the Ravens in 2016 after nine seasons with the Chargers. “In terms of being able to change on the fly to help the defense, nothing’s been close to this. We feel like other teams are generic: Cover 2, Cover 3. For me, that’s not my style. We feel we’re always protected by what I can do and what our defense can do. It takes all eleven, and those guys understand everything I’m saying because we’re an extremely smart defense.”
All of this comes at a time when coordinators find themselves abandoning complex zone pressures in response to a rise in pre-snap motions meant to catch defenses off-balance. Rather than pit his corners in one-on-one foot races with receivers, Martindale decided to teach man corners how to play zone, and to emphasize working within the framework of the defense, not going out of their way to make aggressive plays.
“We’re a man team and we were able to learn how to play with our eyes in zone coverage,” cornerback Brandon Carr says. “We have enough guys on that side of the ball in each position group that we've all been through the fire. The game is about adjusting on the fly. If we see something we've got the tools to get the call out and execute.”
The presence of Weddle, who joined the Ravens a year earlier than Carr did in 2017, was a big reason Carr signed up for four-year, $23.5-million contract.
“I watched him for a long time when he was in San Diego, so I knew his game,” Carr says. “His preparation throughout the week translates. He’s on point, all the time. He reminds me of when I played with Mike Vrabel. Player/coach. He’s the guy giving us our checks on the fly. He’s been big in this process.”
The chemistry and collective experience of this Ravens defensive backfield adds a new layer of complication for offenses. With Carr, Weddle, cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tony Jefferson having started a combined 485 games in the NFL, there are certain levels of communication that go unsaid and un-signaled; on numerous occasions this season, Jefferson and Weddle say they have traded assignments based on intuition and where the other player is on the field when the ball is snapped.
“That took some time to develop,” says Jefferson, who played four seasons with the Cardinals before joining the Ravens in 2017. “Just because our scheme in Arizona isn’t really disguised. Our Cover 3 was basically man. We had the guys to be complicated, but we had guys who just wanted to be pressed up, like Patrick Peterson, and he would shut guys out of the game.”
But the Ravens don't have that. Instead the team smartly taught a defense with aging stars a few new tricks. That defense has become the most dominant in football, just in time for a wild-card playoff game against the Chargers, and after that, perhaps a rematch with the Chiefs. They'd more than welcome the opportunity.
“We look back and we feel like we’re one of the best defenses in the league and we showed it,” Weddle says of the Chiefs game. “We got worn down. 89 plays against one of the best offenses ever. Going forward, we feel like we can shut people down.”
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