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Ravens’ Don Martindale antsy to ‘hit the grass’ with new-look defense | COMMENTARY

Ravens coordinator Wink Martindale held Zoom meetings with players and invited famous guest like Larry Holmes, 'Dr. J' Julius Erving, Ray Lewis and many others.

Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale is a little more antsy this season.

The Ravens had one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2019, ranked No. 5 against the run and No. 6 versus the pass. They allowed only 17.6 points and 300.6 total yards per game, both in the top five of the league.

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They should be even better in 2020, which means Christmas might have come early for Martindale.

The Ravens had a minor facelift during the offseason. They traded starting defensive end Chris Wormley to the Pittsburgh Steelers and declined to re-sign a few starters in inside linebackers Josh Byne and Patrick Onwusasor and nose guard Michael Pierce.

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Instead, they traded for one of the best defensive linemen in the game in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Calais Campbell and signed another high-motor defensive end in the Denver Broncos’ Derek Wolfe. The Ravens drafted LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen with their No. 28 overall pick in the draft and took Ohio State inside linebacker Malik Harrison two rounds later.

They’ll also get nickel corner Tavon Young back after he missed last season because of a neck injury and will move veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith to safety part-time.

Martindale can’t wait to get back on the field, but the Ravens, as well as the other 31 NFL teams, are in a holding pattern because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean Martindale can’t dream.

“You know the players that we have in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe,” Martindale said. “Schematically, does it change a whole lot? We’ll wait and see with different personnel flexibility. They’re two great players and leaders. Calais and Derek both have been just phenomenal in these Zoom meetings and getting to know their teammates as well as you can over the internet.

“I think that it just makes your package more flexible. You’ve got Calais Campbell, who’s the best five-technique in the National Football League, and you’ve got Derek Wolfe. You can work a combination of those guys. It all depends on how fast the younger guys come along. I just think that we’re better up front.”

The Ravens, like the rest of society, have become part of the virtual world. But players can only tolerate so much audio and visual learning. In a physical game like football, they prefer to spend more time on the field or lifting weights than in a meeting room.

But Martindale and coach John Harbaugh have at least tried to make these virtual meetings interesting. They started a series called “Chasing Greatness,” which featured guest speakers such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, former boxing champion Larry Holmes, basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, college basketball coach John Calipari and Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for Baltimore mayor.

If those people can’t hold your attention, no one will.

“We’ve made Zoom meetings an event that our guys didn’t want to miss them, and they took something away from them,” Martindale said. “It just makes you appreciate the small things in life. It makes you appreciate, as a coach, the time away from the grass how much you really do miss them — being hands on, if you will. But we’re right where we want to be as far as installation and all that.”

The Ravens know they need to get these guys out on the field. All 32 teams in the league have to abide by the same rules, but Martindale is known for his creativity and likes to have versatile players who give him some flexibility in his scheme.

What will the Ravens do with Campbell? Will they move him around the line, including putting him on the outside shoulder of the weakest offensive tackle?

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With the additions of Campbell and Wolfe, it will be interesting to see Brandon Williams back at nose guard, which is his best position.

Now, if you double-team Campbell, will that make the pass rushers more effective, especially outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who led the team in sacks last season with 9½?

There are a lot of schemes Martindale can consider, but he has to find the time to work out the kinks in a compressed training camp.

“I just think it’s the muscle memory and the reps,” Martindale said. “So, when we finally do get back together in training camp, I think that it just makes each rep more precious. We’ve had that discussion throughout the defense. We’ve got to be ready to go when we finally do get to hit the grass.”

The Ravens wanted more speed on defense, and they got it with Queen and Harrison. In years past, the Ravens would have had their rookies in camp by now, and the young players would certainly have developed a deeper knowledge of the playbook.

In the case of Queen, he’ll probably start immediately.

“I think that it’s going to be a challenge for him because of the practice time that he’s missed,” Martindale said of Queen. “But I know in just speaking with him and being in meetings with him, I think this kid can handle it. We’re lucky that we drafted a smart and then driven player. He’s going to rise to this challenge. Will it be perfect? No, but we don’t expect that coming out as a rookie.

“The thing of it is, you can see that he doesn’t repeat errors. You can see that in games. On something that he did wrong, you can see him fix it within a game when you are studying his college tape. I can’t wait to get him going. If you’re going to make mistakes … It’s just like I told him, ‘If you are going to make a mistake, make it a 100 miles per hour mistake.’ We can live with that.”

With Young, there are still a lot of questions. The Ravens know he has the ability, but in four seasons, he has started only 17 of 31 games. He also missed the 2017 season with a knee injury.

Young isn’t that big at 5 feet 9 and 185 pounds. If he can play, the Ravens will have several options with Smith, including playing him at nickel over a tight end in passing situations.

Smith also allows the Ravens to move starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey inside to cover slot receivers.

That’s why Martindale can’t wait to get back on the field. The talent is there, but the Ravens have to find out what works and what doesn’t. The more repetitions, the better a coach feels.

The Ravens have done a decent job in trying to build camaraderie and morale, but there are no replacements for practice.

That’s why Martindale is so antsy.

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