Every week, safety Chuck Clark goes through the same routine as reporters shuffle into the locker room. He sits at his locker, wearing headphones, rubbing what smells like Bengay on his legs.
Clark is a creature of habit, but this week, he may have a very different assignment. With Tony Jefferson dealing with an ankle injury and not practicing yet this week, Clark is preparing for first NFL start in Atlanta.
Last weekend against the Oakland Raiders, Clark saw the most extended action of his career, playing 27 snaps at safety after Jefferson’s second-quarter ankle injury. If Jefferson is unable to play against the Falcons, starting in his place would be a special moment for Clark, a second-year player from Virginia Tech who has been a safety-in-waiting behind veterans Jefferson and Eric Weddle.
The Ravens have depth and versatility in the secondary, and they could have gone a variety of ways after Jefferson was injured. Anthony Levine Sr. can play both linebacker and safety, and the Ravens sometimes use three corners and just one safety in their defensive packages. However, Clark was the primary strong safety in the second half and his play was solid during a 34-17 Ravens victory.
“I thought Chuck did a nice job,” Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. “Chuck’s a pro. He wants to be the best special teams player out there when he’s playing special teams, and he wants to be the best safety out there when he’s playing safety. I thought he did a nice job. That’s hard to do – just come right off the bench and all of a sudden it’s, ‘OK, it’s your time.’ But he’s been preparing for that since training camp.”
Training camp and the preseason set a strong foundation for Clark with both Jefferson and Weddle missing time to rest or deal with injuries. Clark got plenty of first-team reps during August and gained confidence, building off a rookie season when the sixth-round pick’s primary action was on special teams. He had two interceptions and 14 tackles in the four preseason games he started.
Clark had been waiting for an opportunity to show he was ready to contribute in the secondary. It came Sunday, and he responded with three tackles on defense.
“It’s always good getting out there, getting on the field getting reps,” Clark said. “It’s getting experience under your belt that you can put in your back pocket. You see stuff you might see again the next week. Playing time never hurts.”
The entire Ravens defense will face a challenge Sunday against the Falcons, particularly in the passing game. The Falcons have one of the league’s top receiving groups, featuring wide receivers Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu, and tight end Austin Hooper. All of them are adept at running after the catch, and quarterback Matt Ryan is one of the league’s most accurate passers. Clark said the Ravens will need to tackle well to prevent short completions from turning into big plays.
Ryan is an experienced quarterback and he will attack Clark if he perceives him as a weak link. However, Clark was one of the fastest safeties at the 2017 NFL combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds. Facing explosive offenses is nothing new for the Ravens. They face a similar matchup twice a year when they play the Pittsburgh Steelers and big-play receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Clark is excited for the challenge. He was a standout in pass coverage at Virginia Tech, where he was also known for his sure tackling.
“They’ve got an explosive offense,” Clark said. “Tackling is important every game, but you’ve got to get these guys on the ground.”