OWINGS MILLS — For nearly any scenario, football coaches and players can find a way to recite the old mantra ‘Next man up.’
Someone gets hurt: Next man up. A player is traded or leaves in free agency: Next man up.
But sometimes, it’s just different. When the face of the defense leaves after 17 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens to sign with another team in free agency, an overused cliché doesn’t suffice.
“I’m not going to sit up here and say next man up – the typical coach talk,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale said Wednesday. “You’re going to miss a Terrell Suggs. Everybody here is. Everybody in the city of Baltimore is. They’re going to miss Terrell Suggs.”
Suggs will not rush quarterbacks for the Ravens for the first time since his rookie season. Since being drafted in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft, Suggs has set the Ravens’ record with 132.5 sacks. His resume includes an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011, a Super Bowl ring and seven Pro Bowl selections. Suggs became the unquestioned leader of the Ravens’ defense following the Super Bowl season as Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed played his final season elsewhere.
Replacing a legendary player like Suggs is never easy, but Baltimore is tasked with moving on from arguably the next two most important players on last year’s unit. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley accepted a massive contract from the New York Jets, while veteran safety Eric Weddle was released and signed with the Los Angeles Rams. Za’Darius Smith, who led the Ravens in sacks last season, received a major free agency payday from the Green Bay Packers.
There is no denying the Ravens have a defense in transition.
“I think transition could be substituted with mourning. It’s like that ‘Avengers’ movie, that Thanos guy snapped his finger and you’re like ‘Where did everybody go?’” Martindale said following a strong practice for the defense, in which his unit intercepted Baltimore’s quarterbacks six times. “There is a transition period, and the biggest transition really is just the communication of the defense. That’s all coming together so that’s exciting to me. That’s recharged our energy – our batteries – of attacking the new season. We’re looking forward to it, because really, nobody cares who we lost. Nobody cares who we lost. I know that.”
Weddle was replaced by three-time First Team All-Pro Earl Thomas, but the jobs at linebacker left behind by Suggs, Mosley and Smith remain up for grabs.
Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young and Chris Board are competing for the two starting inside linebacker positions and the trio earned the praise of their defensive coordinator. Martindale said he likes Baltimore’s options at outside linebacker, too, despite replacing its two sack leaders from last year.
Through the uncertainty, the Ravens remain confident that they can repeat ranking as the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
“That’s been the conversation with all of them. That’s nothing that I’m pushing either,” Martindale said. “That’s just the standard of Raven football, Raven defense, John Harbaugh defense. We know where we need to be, we know where we’re expected to be, and we’re excited to accept that challenge.”
Safety Tony Jefferson admitted it can hurt when teammates who have become family leave, but on the field, football remains a business.
“In the NFL, these types of things happen,” he said. “It’s a business, so you have to be ready and prepared for all types of moves and things that can happen. The more you dwell on it, the more time you’re wasting. We were all hurt, we love those guys dearly, they’re like brothers – like family. That portion of it, that hurts. But the football aspect, you’ve got to move on.
“It’s time prepare ourselves for the upcoming season because it’ll be here before you know it. I believe its 87 days from now until we’re in Miami. We’re all looking forward to that. We’ve got a lot of time in between to get better.”
Follow Sean Grogan on Twitter: @Sean_CecilWhig