There’s no postseason award for this, but if the Ravens designated a “Happiest Camper Walking the Halls of the Under Armour Performance Center,” I’m pretty sure Don “Wink” Martindale would win.
Martindale, of course, was elevated to the Ravens’ defensive coordinator position this week after serving on Head Coach John Harbaugh’s staff since 2012 as a position coach in charge of linebackers.
A major promotion like that would make any coach a happy camper, but Martindale, 54, has more reason than most to smile. He is being handed the keys to a pretty darn nice football vehicle.
The Ravens’ defense led the NFL in takeaways in 2017 and just missed the top 10 in fewest yards allowed. It was good enough to register a league-leading three shutouts. Only five other teams allowed fewer points than Baltimore.
Any NFL coordinator’s job is a plum, but Martindale is taking over a playoff-caliber unit with bona fide assets. Pro Bowl thirty-somethings Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle lead the way on and off the field. The front office never fails to find new blood for the defense via free agency and the draft, guaranteeing that there is always a developing crop of potential contributors.
There are a lot of pieces to work with, in other words; a lot for Martindale to like about his new job. It’s a far cry from the Denver Broncos defense he coordinated in 2010.
Some fans wanted a bigger name, like Chuck Pagano, to replace Dean Pees as DC. But I’m always skeptical about trying to recreate the past on such occasions. It can work, but just as often doesn’t. Honestly, I’d rather look ahead, not back.
Besides, Martindale is a Rex Ryan disciple, so he brings more of a historical connection to the Ravens’ defensive heyday than people think.
In any case, the splashy quotient of Martindale’s hire isn’t as important as the fact that Suggs, Weddle and C.J. Mosley immediately and strongly advocated for him as soon as the job opened up. That’s telling. Martindale was very much people’s choice in this election. Between that and his aggressive approach, he sure seems like the right fit.
But the fact that he’s inheriting a quality unit doesn’t mean he’ll simply seek to maintain the status quo under Pees, who held the job for five years. Though the defense posted solid numbers in 2017, it also leaked at times, and of course, gave up that brutal touchdown in the final minute of the regular season, denying the Ravens a trip to the playoffs.
Harbaugh made his expectations clear last week when he said, “Our defense was pretty darn good this year, but I guarantee it can be better.”
When Martindale tacks up a to-do list on the bulletin board over his new desk, here are the three items that, in my mind, should be at the top:
Tighten up the rushing defense.
Very quietly, the Ravens set a franchise record for most yards allowed per carry in 2017 - 4.1 on average. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce received high marks from Pro Football Focus, but the edges were vulnerable, as was the inside linebacking spot alongside Mosley. Those become crucial fixes now. The Ravens went 2-5 when they gave up at least 100 yards on the ground this season, and 7-2 when they did NOT give up 100.
The Ravens made it their motto in 2017 but still gave up late leads in several key defeats, reprising a problem that consistently arose during Pees’ final years as DC. I’m not going to drill deep into X’s and O’s here, but something about how the Ravens approach the final stages of games needs to change.
Find new pass rushers.
The Ravens’ team sack total rose by a healthy 25 percent in 2017 compared to the year before, with Suggs (11) and Matthew Judon (8) leading the way. But it’s risky to continue to rely so heavily on Suggs, who will turn 36 in the fall. Either Za’Darius Smith (3.5), Tyus Bowser (3) or both need to step up more, as does Tim Williams. The clock is ticking.