OWINGS MILLS, Md. — New Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale is no stranger to feeling pressure.
Try having one of the best defensive minds in NFL history looking over your shoulder while coaching in an NCAA Division-IAA playoff game. Having worked with both Rex and Rob Ryan, Martindale called their father, the late Buddy Ryan, a “big influence” on his coaching career on Thursday. The two-time Super Bowl champion assistant and former NFL head coach spent his later years in the state of Kentucky where Martindale made his final collegiate coaching stop.
“I called a game at Western Kentucky, and he was standing next to me on the sideline at a playoff game,” said Martindale, who worked for former Hilltoppers head coach Jack Harbaugh from 2001-02 and finished his stint there a year later. “You want to talk about pressure? That was a little bit of pressure — not blitzing when he wanted to blitz.”
With the Ravens coming off a second straight season in which the defense’s failure to get a late stop left them short of the playoffs, the former linebackers coach steps into a role surrounded by high expectations. And with most of the offseason focus expected to be on the other side of the ball — though we’ve made that incorrect assumption in the past — Martindale will be asked to reach another level with a defense that’s received a plethora of resources in recent years.
Upon being promoted last week, the 54-year-old received congratulatory messages from many of the greatest defensive players in franchise history, ranging from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and current 16th-year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Martindale also received strong endorsements from other current players such as Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, showing he has plenty of support in the locker room despite not being a sexy choice for fans who were intrigued by the possibility of Chuck Pagano returning to Baltimore.
This will be Martindale’s second stint as an NFL defensive coordinator after serving in that capacity with Denver in 2010. Having lost All-Pro defensive end Elvis Dumervil to a season-ending pectoral injury that summer, Martindale didn’t have much talent with which to work as the Broncos finished last in the league in total yards and points allowed and head coach Josh McDaniels was fired in December.
“I know it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to work out,” said Martindale, who was dismissed at season’s end and hired as Ravens inside linebackers coach a year later. “Not at the time, but eight years later, I’m glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It’s like I tell my guys — you either win or you learn.”
Martindale now inherits a talented defense that impressively pitched three shutouts and led the NFL in takeaways this season, but the unit finished sixth in points allowed, 10th in passing yards allowed, 15th in rushing yards allowed, and 12th in total yards surrendered and saw its performance slip over the final month when Baltimore blew late leads against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The stunning home loss to the Bengals on New Year’s Eve resulted in John Harbaugh’s team missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
The Ravens are already devoting more cap space to their defense than the other side of the ball and have used 13 of their last 17 Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks on defensive players. In other words, Martindale needs to find more consistency than retired defensive coordinator Dean Pees did with the current group and probably shouldn’t be expecting major additions this offseason.
“We’re close. Obviously, the last two years it has been the last play that’s knocked us out of it,” Martindale said. “We are going to work diligently — all of us — with our package and situational football. That’s going to be the next step I think that’ll skyrocket us. That is the big thing that I see.
“We are going to take our ‘good’ and make it great. We were really good. Let’s make it great.”
With numerous holes on offense and a limited amount of projected salary-cap space for 2018, Martindale could be the X factor for the defense. Of course, some recent draft picks will need to step up in a way similar to how Matthew Judon progressed this past season with Pro Bowl veterans such as Suggs and safety Eric Weddle not getting any younger and high-priced cornerback Jimmy Smith returning from a torn Achilles tendon.
But many will be eager to see how Martindale’s fingerprints compare to Pees, who was criticized for too many late-game collapses and not being more aggressive in certain situations. The new defensive coordinator emphasized that success is ultimately about the players and putting them in the right positions to succeed.
Without being disrespectful when asked how he’d compare to his predecessor, Martindale made his intentions clear.
“I think personality-wise and just calls, there’s going to be some things that are the same,” Martindale said. “And then there’s going to be some times where I’m going to pressure more. I think I have a more aggressive personality in calling a game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That’s some of the things I’ve learned from the past, so there’s that fine line — what quarterback you’re playing and things of that nature.”
Finding that fine line could be the difference for a good defense striving to be great.