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New Ravens defensive coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale gives nod to high school coach for jump-starting career

The nickname was bestowed on Don Martindale the first day he arrived at little Defiance College. A roommate and teammate named Donald Brown saw Martindale’s athletic bag and made reference to a popular TV game-show host.

“I walked in and I had ‘Martindale’ on my bag and he said, ‘Hey ‘Wink,’ ” the Ravens’ new defensive coordinator said with a smile during training camp. “It stuck.”

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Nearly 40 years later, as he transitioned from playing football to coaching high schools, colleges and in the NFL, Martindale stuck, too, including the past six years in charge of the Ravens’ linebackers.

Hired to replace Dean Pees in January, Martindale is now tasked with taking the Ravens defense from average to elite, hoping that Terrell Suggs can remain ageless as the unit returns to its old, violent self.

“I like where we’re at right now,” Martindale, 55, said early in training camp. “I’m excited about the direction we’re going.”

In Martindale’s mind, and in the game plans he draws up, it’s a direction that heads hard and fast at opposing quarterbacks.

Asked how much better the pass rush could be this season, third-year outside linebacker Matthew Judon said: “It’s going to be as good as we want it to be, and as hard as we work. Like I said, we all fine-tuned our game this offseason. We all got a year under our belt and [we] are seeing more things. They’re seeing more things at this level. And, we all follow ‘Siz’ [Suggs]”.

It’s a philosophy that has long been part of Martindale’s approach as well as some of his predecessors in Baltimore, most notably Rex Ryan. Martindale coached with Ryan and John Harbaugh at the University of Cincinnati in the mid-to-late-1990s.

It goes back even further, to what he learned from his high school coach outside Dayton, Ohio.

“With his personality I think he likes the idea of pressure,” said Ed Domsitz, who coached Martindale on the youth and high school levels in Ohio and remains a close friend and mentor. “I’ve heard him say many times, ‘The quarterback can’t complete the pass on his back.’ ”

Much of Martindale’s love for football, and coaching, also goes back to his relationship with Domsitz. They met when Martindale was a fourth-grader and Domsitz was fresh out of Ohio State, where he didn’t play but once took a course taught by legendary coach Woody Hayes.

“He’s my hero, that’s why [I] got into coaching,” Martindale said of Domsitz, now 68 and going into his 44th season as a high school head coach. “It was about how he built relationships and how he coached you and how you wanted to do right for him because of the way he he treated you and coached you.”

Said Domsitz: “It’s like I tell kids now, 'If you love the game so much, if you’re so passionate about the game, but you don’t think you can go without it, you may want to think about coaching because it does keep you involved.’ Don was one of those people. … As he began coaching you could see that passion.”

Domsitz even gives Martindale some credit for his own coaching longevity.

“He helped bring my career along,” Domsitz said. “My first two years I think we were 0-10 and 2-8. His sophomore year we were 5-5. His junior year we were 8-2 and his senior year we were 7-3. Don and his class helped save my career because when you start 2-18, you need some help.”

The Ravens have shown during the preseason a proclivity to blitz, or at least line up as if Martindale was going unleash a bunch of pass rushers to help Suggs get to the quarterback.

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Many have said they believe he will blitz a lot more than Pees.

“It’s been heavily stressed,” fourth-year defensive tackle Carl Davis said before he was cut Saturday. “That’s something we talk about in meetings all the time. Guys go home, we’re talking about it, watching other guys from different teams, how they pass-rush. And, we’re actually enforcing it a lot in practice. We do a lot of one-on-ones and a lot of play-action passes, converting from run to pass. You can tell that’s been heavily enforced.”

Said Martindale: “The M.O. with me is playing technically sound, first, and playing fast and getting to the football. Sometimes I think you can rush four people and it feels like a pressure if your defense is playing fast. To say I’ll blitz more, I don’t know if that’s true or not.”

Despite being close to the league’s top 10 in sacks — the Ravens had 41, including 11 by the rejuvenated Suggs — the defense often couldn’t overcome the long stretches of stagnation by the offense. Getting pressure on the quarterback can also result in turnovers, and the Ravens led the NFL with 22 interceptions last season.

Asked about the team’s ability to create turnovers this season, Martindale said after the first two preseason games: ”We’re excited about that. You get a lot of takeaways, you have a fast defense. And that’s what you can see. We’re playing really fast.”

Third-year outside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor agrees.

“Wink opened up the playbook a little bit and [has been] letting us fly around and just play ball,” Onwuasor said.

Having the 35-year-old Suggs running around with the enthusiasm and ferocity that he did before Achilles and biceps tears caused him to miss parts of two seasons can be a major asset.

“He’s good with all of them that way,” Martindale said of Suggs. “He is fantastic. He can break down each guy’s game, and he can say, ‘Here is what I need to see from you.' And it really sounds like that — a coach. But obviously it means a lot more when Siz is saying that.”

As much as he tries to downplay it, Martindale’s schemes and play-calling will be compared with that of his predecessors, and not just Pees, who after announcing his retirement on New Year’s Day after a disappointing 2017 season, then joined the Tennessee Titans in the same position on Jan. 29.

It marked the second time in his 10 years as an NFL assistant that Martindale will be a defensive coordinator. The first time lasted just one season with the Denver Broncos, in 2010, when future Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil was lost to injury early on and the defense never really recovered, finishing last in the league in points allowed.

Broncos coach Josh McDaniels was fired 12 games into a 4-12 season, and Martindale was gone when the season ended.

“It’s humbling,” Martindale said this summer. “I use the saying, ‘Being a winner, you get better.’ You either win or you learn and we had to learn a lot that year. It was a struggle.”

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In many ways, it seems almost fitting that Martindale’s adult life began at a place called Defiance. He is a blue-collar, chip-on-the-shoulder kind of guy. He appreciated Domsitz’s influence and guidance so much that he paid for his high school coach and his wife to attend the Ravens’ trip to the Super Bowl in 2013.

“He even gave me some money to go to the casinos,” Domsitz said with a laugh.

Martindale’s coach and former high school teammates still call him by his given name, but everyone else calls him "Wink." Martindale has never met the man for whom he is nicknamed, Winston Conrad “Wink” Martindale, 84, a game-show host off and on from 1964 through 2010 and was best known for “Tic-Tac-Dough.”

“I always say this, ‘I wish I was related to him,’ ” the Ravens’ Martindale said. “There’d probably be a pretty good-size inheritance.”

Year-by-year look at the Ravens defense

Year, Defensive coordinator, Final ranking (Yards per game)

1996, Marvin Lewis, 30th (368.1)

1997, Marvin Lewis, 25th (335.2)

1998, Marvin Lewis, 22nd (331.1)

1999, Marvin Lewis, 2nd (263.9)

2000, Marvin Lewis, 2nd (247.9)

2001, Marvin Lewis, 2nd (277.9)

2002, Mike Nolan, 22nd (334.6)

2003, Mike Nolan, 3rd (281.0)

2004, Mike Nolan, 6th (300.2)

2005, Rex Ryan, 5th (284.7)

2006, Rex Ryan, 1st (264.1)

2007, Rex Ryan, 6th (301.6)

2008, Rex Ryan, 2nd (261.1)

2009, Greg Mattison, 3rd (300.5)

2010, Greg Mattison, 10th (318.9)

2011, Chuck Pagano, 3rd (288.9)

2012, Dean Pees, 17th (350.9)

2013, Dean Pees, 12th (335.5)

2014, Dean Pees, 8th (336.9)

2015, Dean Pees, 8th (337.4)

2016, Dean Pees, 7th (322.1)

2017, Dean Pees, 12th (325.1)

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