Ravens relying on 'Wink' Martindale's steady hand in developing young linebacker corps

Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen’s raspy and unique pitch reverberates across the three fields behind the Under Armour Performance Center. When one of Chris Hewitt’s defensive backs makes a mistake, he pounces quickly and loudly. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ voice increases with intensity when he sees something he doesn’t like.

Linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale stands about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and a few paces to the right of the quarterback. His eyes covered by dark glasses and his salt-and-pepper hair flowing onto his wide neck and shoulders, Martindale is barely heard above the din of a Ravens training camp practice.

And that’s a good thing for the team’s linebackers.

“If Wink yells, that means he’s fed up, man,” former Ravens weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr said. “If Wink yells at you, you’re probably on the way out of the building. I remember only one time he really yelled at somebody and that guy wasn’t there the next week.”

Martindale’s first year on John Harbaugh’s staff was in the Super Bowl-winning 2012 season, when his inside linebacker group was led by veterans Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe. Five years later, the Ravens’ linebacker corps is as young as it has been in years.

Second-year pro Matthew Judon and rookie Tyus Bowser are both learning the strong-side linebacker position. Rookie Tim Williams is behind franchise cornerstone Terrell Suggs at rush linebacker. Second-year players Kamalei Correa and Patrick Onwuasor are competing for the weak-side linebacker spot, where they’ll line up next to C.J. Mosley.

“It is really exciting when they are playing well,” Martindale said. “You pull your hair out when there are new things, because a lot of the rookies, every day is a new day.”

One of the organization’s calling cards has been its ability to find and develop quality linebackers. First-round draft picks have become perennial Pro Bowl selections. Little-known undrafted free agents have morphed into key defensive cogs.

If the Ravens are going to have one of the league’s best defenses, they’re going to need their linebacker corps to develop quickly. The onus to make that happen will fall partly on the broad shoulders of Martindale, a former defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos whose relationship with Harbaugh dates to 1996 when they were both assistants at the University of Cincinnati.

Martindale has factored prominently in Mosley’s development into a two-time Pro Bowler and in Orr’s rise from a special teams standout to the team’s top tackler last season. Now, Martindale has a room full of impressionable young players to mold.

“He makes the job easy for us. He has great vision and always wants the best for us. He’s not heckling us because we’re not doing this one thing right or that one thing [wrong],” Mosley said. “The man doesn’t teach a certain technique to a point where you can’t play your style of football. That’s one of the reasons he’s a laid-back coach, but he’s definitely a players’ coach. He’ll let you do what you do best. He demands the same out of everyone.”

Orr, who was forced to retire in January because of a congenital neck/spine condition before attempting a comeback, said Martindale is one of the best teachers the Ravens have in their organization, and predicted the team’s young linebackers will benefit greatly. He said Martindale’s strength lies in his ability to teach not only each linebacker’s responsibility but what every defensive player on the field is supposed to be doing on a particular play.

Martindale has a direct and noncombative communication style and is able to make corrections and lay out expectations without even raising his voice.

“He is able to get information and break it down to where a player can understand it. That’s key,” Orr said. “He’s definitely going to speed up the learning curve for them. He never gets high, never gets too low. He’s never going to pout or get upset. He’ll just say, ‘OK, let’s move beyond it. Let’s clean it up.’ That’s big for young guys.”

Martindale also has a way of breaking the tension and creating a light environment with a quip or a practical joke. If he notices a player has a new haircut — and “he notices everything,” Orr said — he’ll make sure everybody in the building knows about it, too.

His approach has meshed well with accomplished veterans late in their careers, like Lewis and Daryl Smith, and young players trying to find their way like Mosley and Orr, one a first-round pick and the other an undrafted free agent. It has also made an impression on Williams, who built a relationship with Martindale during the pre-draft process, and Correa, who had a rough rookie year but is picking up confidence by the day.

“He keeps it real with everybody, and he’s a good dude,” Correa said. “He doesn’t yell, [but] he’s straight to the point. If you’re making plays, you’re going to play. If you’re not, you’re not.”

A football lifer, Martindale, a 54-year-old Ohio native, played linebacker at Defiance College and began his coaching career at his alma mater in 1986. His winding coaching career took him to Notre Dame (1994-95), Cincinnati (1996-98), Western Illinois (1999) and Western Kentucky (2001-03), where he coached under Jack Harbaugh, John’s father.

Martindale entered the NFL ranks in 2004 and coached Oakland Raiders linebackers for five seasons. After one season coaching Broncos linebackers, he became their defensive coordinator in 2010. He lasted one year in that role as a banged-up Broncos team went 4-12. That led to a reunion with John Harbaugh two years later.

“Obviously, Wink is a very good coach,” Harbaugh said. “He’s developed a lot of young players — free-agent-type guys to first-round picks. He can handle the whole spectrum of player. He deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Martindale acknowledged there are times he doesn’t have to say much. There’s a standard that comes with playing linebacker for the Ravens. The players know it and accept it, and the presence of Suggs and the picture of Lewis hanging in the linebacker meeting room, serve as omnipresent reminders.

“Guys buy into that tradition, and people who come here, whether it’s free agency, trade or the draft, they want to be great,” Mosley said. “This defense has always [had] a great legacy, so you always want to be that player on that defense to continue that legacy.”

That standard extends to the coaching staff. Mike Smith, Jack Del Rio, Mike Pettine and Mike Singletary all were former Ravens linebackers coaches that ultimately became head coaches. Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio coached Ravens linebackers in 2009 and Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino held the same position from 2010 to 2015.

Before being named Ravens defensive coordinator in 2012, Pees spent two seasons coaching the Ravens linebackers. Now, he gets to work with Martindale and Cullen, whose responsibilities include the edge rushers, in getting them up to speed.

“It is a challenge, but I do like the way the guys are responding,” Pees said of the young group. “The thing of it is — they see an opportunity for them to play, so they are going to practice really hard and they are going to make it competitive and tough on the other guy. It is funny that you kind of put C.J. in there as a veteran — what is he, [fourth] year? And he’s the old man back there in the middle. But it is always fun having those guys; it is always fun developing those guys. ‘Wink’ does a great job with them.”

There have been times in camp when Martindale has to remind players where to line up and what their responsibility is in coverage. But the frustration dissipates when he sees Williams easily get around the corner in a pass-rush drill or Correa fly to the ball.

“This is the youngest and fastest that we have been at the linebacker position,” Martindale said. “It is going to be fun to watch. I am excited about the preseason games. I know a lot of people don’t get excited about the preseason games, but I am excited … because I want to see these young kids play.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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