Justin Madubuike was headed into his second NFL season when he decided to see what Aaron Donald was all about.
Madubuike had heard the comparisons made between he and the Los Angeles Rams' three-time Defensive Player of the Year, at least in terms of body type, athleticism, and playing style. So Madubuike got in touch with Donald's trainer and went up to Pittsburgh for several days to train with Donald about a month before the start of training camp in 2021.
Madubuike was always a hard worker, but he came away with a different appreciation.
"The guy is a monster," Madubuike said. "He's just so focused and in-tune with his grind."
Madubuike said Donald wasn't much of a talker, but when their training days ended, Donald told him to always keep pushing himself. Madubuike has followed through, and it's that Donald-like work ethic that's fueling his breakout fourth season.
Heading into Sunday's Week 14 game against Donald's Los Angeles Rams at M&T Bank Stadium, Madubuike leads all NFL defensive tackles with 10 sacks – four more than Donald.
Donald is likely to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame someday, so comparisons between the two set an extremely high bar. But the hype about Madubuike's potential has long simmered. Veteran scribe Peter King named Madubuike as one of his three Defensive Player of the Year candidates before the 2021 season – just Madubuike's second year in the league.
Now in year four, Madubuike is living up to the billing.
"It kind of makes me feel like the hard work is working," Madubuike said. "That's one of those guys that everybody in the league respects his body of work.
"It's nice to be recognized with him, but I'm a long ways away. He's one of the greatest to ever play. But I'm definitely working my ass off. Just one day at a time."
Ravens coaches and players have been asked why Madubuike is having a breakout season in just about every way possible.
His coaches all say it hasn't come out of nowhere. Madubuike has gradually improved every season, doubling his sack total every year from one as a rookie, two as a sophomore, 5.5 last season, and now 10 (and counting).
"I'd attribute it to a few things. One, just his overall worth ethic, and I think when you start to stack those reps over the course of time, you start to really feel the dividends going into Year Four," Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald said.
"He just brings it every day, man. I know it sounds like coach talk or coach cliché, but that really does mean something. You can't go in and out where some days you bring it and some days you don't. It doesn't work like that. You have to keep building every day, and 'Beeks' is a guy that's out here every day, and he goes 100 miles per hour every time he's out there. I definitely think very highly of Justin and the way he plays the game. He plays like a Raven."
Madubuike has taken to the coaching of Defensive Line Coach Anthony Weaver and Outside Linebackers Coach Chuck Smith, who has helped arm him with an arsenal of pass rush moves.
Veteran guard Kevin Zeitler was telling Weaver the other day that with most defensive tackles, you have to either worry about them running around you with elite quickness or running over you. With Madubuike, it's everything.
"You've seen 'Beeks' get a sack on the spin. You've seen 'Beeks' get a sack on the cross-chop. You've seen 'Beeks' get a sack on the chop-drive. He's worked on his skills and basically took what he did last year and brought that forward," Smith said.
"The last thing, when you hear 'dawg' – we throw that around again a lot, [that] cliché – 'Beeks' is really the kind of dude that is absolutely trying to knock your head off every play. There is no other way to put it."
Weaver said there really isn't much different from Madubuike this year compared to last, but that his football intelligence continues to rise with more experienced. That, and he's had more opportunities after the departure of veteran Calais Campbell this offseason.
"He's walked in this year with just mission-minded [focus] from the beginning. I'm talking about in March. To see it all come to fruition has been awesome," Weaver said.
Campbell was a big role model for Madubuike the last three years, constantly telling him that he had unique talent. Madubuike also took knowledge from former Ravens veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston. The three are still in touch to this day. Earlier this season, Madubuike called up Houston to ask about a certain rip move from the edge. He also asked him what he eats on game days.
"Ask detailed questions, write notes down, I'm doing all that," Madubuike said. "I'm asking silly questions, real questions. I'm not afraid to ask a dumb question. I'm just trying to find any way to get better.
"I want to look back on my career and make sure I gave everything I've got. Did I work hard? You don't want to have that feeling like, 'I wish I would have …' That motivates me to always work hard and give everything I've got."
Madubuike is lining himself up for a huge payday, but he's not focused on that. He thinks this is the Ravens' year to win it all, as they're stockpiled with defensive talent.
"When I think about getting paid, it doesn't work for me," Madubuike said. "When I think about being a freaking monster and being great, all that's going to come.
"I'm not going to be the first and not going to be the last to go through the contract thing. You can worry about it, let it stress you, and put your energy towards that. Or you can put your energy toward getting better and your teammates."