With a 'Wink,' Ravens going from robots to special ops on defense

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- All the talk surrounding the Baltimore Ravens defense has been about change, even though every starter returns.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs says the handcuffs have been removed. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams feels they're no longer being programmed. Coach John Harbaugh sees the defense going into combat mode.

The change in philosophy comes with new defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale, who replaced Dean Pees this offseason. Just as offseason practices have begun, Ravens players are praising Martindale's system, which gives more responsibility and freedom to the players.

“He’s not over-coaching anything; he’s just kind of letting you go out there and play fast," Williams said. "He’s going to correct you, but at the same time, he’s not going to put the chains on you and kind of make you a robot."

The Ravens' defense is coming off a season in which it ranked No. 12, its worst in four years. What stings more is a second straight season of allowing a last-minute touchdown that eliminated Baltimore from the playoffs.

Pees announced his retirement at a news conference at the end of the season (even though he eventually ended up with the Tennessee Titans), and Martindale was promoted from linebackers coach eight days later. Martindale hasn't changed the defense; it's more of a reorganization.

"I take great pride in putting players in the right place so they have success," Martindale said. "And when they know that, that’s when you really get things rolling."

Harbaugh said this scheme takes into account the amount of defensive veteran players, who can now make calls on the fly.

"So if you think about it, it’s a little bit like if you talk to people in the military," Harbaugh said. "They talk about one of the big differences over the years in the U.S. military and other militaries is the fact that our military is given the ability and the training to think on their feet in real time in combat."

Now, if the players see a mismatch in a certain spot, Eric Weddle can make a call to cover it up. Or, if Baltimore has an opening for a certain pressure, linebacker C.J. Mosley can get the players in the right position to attack it.

"That might be easier said than done, but we’re trying," Harbaugh said. "I think that’s what we’re trying to build in our defense."

Martindale's greatest strength is his inclusiveness. Everyone has a say in the construction of the defense, from Harbaugh to defensive line coach Joe Cullen to the quality-control coaches.

"He’s bringing in a lot of different elements that we haven’t had," Weddle said. "For us, as players, it’s exciting. It’s a challenge for us to go over new things, new terminology and things that will give us the ability to react and change on the fly -- and not be so blackboard defense, black and white, this is what we do versus this. We are able to, when it gets to the season, be able to change on the fly to put us in the best position possible, which will help us in the long run to be able to finish and be the best defense possible."

The Ravens long have prided themselves on defense. Baltimore has ranked in the top 10 in 12 of the past 15 seasons.

Last year, the Ravens' defense took a step backward. Most of Baltimore's success came against backup or rookie quarterbacks. The Ravens went 7-2 against the likes of Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer, holding them to 13.3 points per game. Baltimore struggled against experienced starters, going 2-5 and allowing 26.1 points per game.

This season, the challenges facing the Ravens' defense include Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Derek Carr and Ben Roethlisberger.

"He’s taken the handcuffs off the guys," Suggs said of Martindale. "Sometimes a player can be shackled just by the rules that come with the defense. But I think Wink is just going to allow us to go make plays; just be that fast-moving defense that this city and our fans love. That’s why I’m very excited for the season. It’s going to be fun, especially with this personnel that we have."