Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston picks his all-time top Raven at every position, including coach.
When Ravens starting safety Tony Jefferson went down with a knee injury in Week 4 of the 2019 season, Chuck Clark knew he had to prove himself. He responded with a team-leading 68 tackles.
Coming into the 2020 season, Clark knows he has to prove himself again and again because consistency distinguishes the average players from the good ones, and the good players from the great ones.
“Last year was a steppingstone for my career. I was thrown into a starting role in Week 5,” Clark said. “I had started a few games before in previous seasons, but last year I got a chance to go out there and make plays, and now I have to build off that.”
Actually, Clark, about to begin his fourth season, became the anchor that cemented the defense last season. In two of the three games before he started, the Ravens gave up 349 passing yards to the Arizona Cardinals and 363 to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Ravens weren’t just getting beat on the outside in one-on-one matchups — they had gaping holes in their pass defense. Players were out of position and confused.
“Chuck is extremely smart,” defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said. “He can line everybody up, he can manage the defense and, on top of that, he’s a great athlete. He has every attribute to become a great player in this league.”
Both his teammates and the coaching staff consider Clark to be one of the most cerebral players on the team. Ask him the assignment of any defensive player and he knows the answer.
The players joke with him about that, but it’s different on game day. Clark learned how to pay attention to detail from former Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
“Just watching him and he knew what they had to do from the corner, to the nickel, to the dime, to the Mike [middle linebacker] and you have to know so you can do your job,” Clark said. “Yeah, they kind of joke on me about how I know everything, all the ins and outs.
“But in the time I have been here, we’ve had different coordinators and a college playbook is a lot different than the NFL’s,” added Clark, who played at Virginia Tech. “In college, you might have 10 to 15 plays, but in the NFL, there are so many packages, spreads and techniques. So, you have to focus on more things like terminology and offensive sets.”
Clark showed last season that he could handle the physical side. Besides leading the team in tackles, he also had a sack, an interception, two forced fumbles and nine passes defensed.
He led the team in tackles in two of its biggest wins of the season, with seven each against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Clark is versatile enough to play either strong or free safety and physical enough to double as an inside linebacker in certain sub packages when the Ravens play more than four defensive backs.
Like most other NFL players, his training has been slowed by COVID-19, which has shut down most gyms and all team training facilities.
But Clark won’t let that or most anything else bother him. He doesn’t think much about the regular season being delayed or playing in front of few fans. Game day can be like practice.
“I got my own stuff [weights] because I know the things I have to do to take care of my body. We are having virtual workouts as a team,” Clark said. “I have to come in in great shape and be ready to go. But I try not to think about this virus situation too much, I don’t want it in my mind. When we step out on the field, I am confident they will come up with the best solution for us to be safe and healthy.
“I don’t think they would throw us out there and we would be at risk. As for the fans, we want them, but if not, it won’t make you any less of a player. They make the environment electric by being loud. But when we step out on the field or on the court, if you play basketball, you are there to compete.”
It’s personal, and so is Clark’s desire to get better. Before last season, he had played mostly on special teams and in designed packages.
But he gained the respect of his teammates and the front office, which made him a sixth-round pick in 2017.
“Last year the season ended a little earlier than we wanted, and it left a bad taste in our mouths,” Clark said. “When we came back for our next meeting we decided to use that as a steppingstone. We’ve brought in some guys and drafts picks that we believe can come in and help us on offense, defense, special teams, and help us to the Super Bowl.