On his first day as a Raven last year, still dressed in a suit after inking his contract and an introductory press conference, Eric Weddle briefly chatted with Ravens Director of Performance Steve Saunders about his training regimen.
Saunders asked whether Weddle wanted to get an introduction to the program the next day, but Weddle had a 10:30 a.m. flight back to California.
"Look, man, I'm an early guy. I wake up at 4 a.m. every day," Saunders recalls saying. "If you want, I'll pick you up at your hotel at 5:30."
Weddle was in, and that was the start of a relationship that produced big results for the Ravens last season. In Saunders' first year in Baltimore, Weddle was one of his poster boys. This season, the goal is to have a whole team of Weddles.
As part of this year's coaching changes, Saunders has been given the reins* *to the Ravens' entire performance department.
Last year, he was in charge of the conditioning and recovery program, but players had the choice of using*his strength program or sticking *with the old workout. Saunders said he had about 15-20 converts.
"I felt like I could've helped more guys last year," Saunders said. "Now everybody has to do it. There's nowhere for anybody to hide anymore. The guy that liked to hide on the leg press, those days are long gone."
The Ravens reached a record 20 players on injured reserve (IR) in 2015. They had 19 players on IR the year before. Thus, Head Coach John Harbaugh brought in Saunders, the founder of Power Train Sports Institute, to overhaul and innovate in the injury prevention/recovery phase.
Last year, Baltimore had far fewer injuries. The Ravens' biggest injuries were to left tackle Ronnie Stanley (four games, foot), cornerback Jimmy Smith (five games, back/ankle), guard Marshal Yanda (three games, shoulder), outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (eight games, Achilles)* *and tight end Benjamin Watson (full season, Achilles).
"Between the IR and missed games, it can have such a huge impact," Saunders said. "I had a good impact last year; it was a good start. Now I get to do the strength, the speed, everything with the guys. I'm really excited about this year."
On top of continuing to prevent injuries, Saunders now wants to make the Ravens much more physically impressive – faster, stronger, more explosive – on the field.
Many players were stunned by the intensity of Saunders' conditioning program last year when they returned from their offseason breaks. This year, it's going to be another round of shock in the weight room.
"The guys that haven't done my strength program are in for a rude awakening," Saunders said. "We're going to have some sore puppies walking around here the first couple weeks in April."
Saunders has removed 40 machines in the Ravens weight room, and more will probably go. He says his program is going to be a lot more intense, with longer holds, more reps and more explosive movements. Saunders said he's "revamping the entire strength program."
"My program is based on whether it transfers to the field," he said. "What are the muscle imbalances? What's holding a guy back? It's getting them strong for football and not just strong on a machine. That's a big difference."
Along with Weddle, some of Saunders' believers last year included quarterback Joe Flacco (bounced back from a season-ending knee injury to play all 16 games), fullback Kyle Juszczyk (first Pro Bowl), tight end Dennis Pitta (led all NFL tight ends in receptions after nearly two years away from football), kicker Justin Tucker (Pro Bowl), inside linebacker Zachary Orr, wide receiver Mike Wallace, safety Lardarius Webb and Dumervil.
A key piece of Saunders' methods is tailoring workouts for each individual* *player. There will also be more focus on lifting during the season.
"I pushed the guys a lot more, but I pushed them in a smart way," Saunders said. "These guys want that. There's a buy-in from the athletes, in that they believe in this and want to get better each time.
"Guys want an individualized program too. They don't want to see 50 guys all doing the same thing, because everyone has different needs at the end of the day."
Weddle worked out with Saunders every morning during the season. After practice, they did rehabilitation work. As crazy as it might sound, Weddle's body tested stronger at the end of the season than the beginning.
At 32 years old, Weddle said it's the healthiest he's ever finished a season. And Saunders is a big reason why he talks about 2017 being his best yet.
"A lot of credit for the way I played and how my body held up goes to Steve – the time and energy he spent with me, and the program he gave me for my specific body type," Weddle said. "He's going to make our team 10 times better than it's ever been."
Saunders made a name for himself working with Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, who is still playing at a high level at 38. He has personally trained hundreds of NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA athletes.
Now Saunders is transferring all he knows solely to the Ravens, and he can't be more excited.
"It's going to pay huge dividends on the field," he said. "I want other teams to walk out and be like, 'Holy [crap], did you see those guys?' I want to have an imposing team."