Wink Martindale’s ‘special ability’ empowering Giants’ defensive players

Jerome Henderson was talking the other day about the superlative summer cornerback Darnay Holmes has enjoyed and unsurprisingly gave credit to the young player for his development. Henderson, the Giants’ defensive backs coach, then recognized someone else for helping Holmes get the best out of himself. 

“I think Wink has also empowered him to be him,’’ Henderson said. 

It is a sentiment often used around the Giants since Wink Martindale came on the scene. He has already made a deep impression as the new defensive coordinator. The outward appearance and persona of the 59-year-old is gruff and gritty — head coach Brian Daboll often jokes about Martindale’s decidedly casual attire — but there is growing evidence that the mastermind of what will be one of the NFL’s most aggressive defenses is capable of instilling uncommon confidence in his players. 

“Absolutely,’’ Henderson said. “They’re excited. Wink has that special ability to make everybody feel in the room that they’re empowered, go play.’’ 

It is intriguing that Patriots coach Bill Belichick, after Thursday night’s 23-21 preseason loss, intimated that the Giants — Martindale — brought undue pressure on rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe, considering this was the first game, and offenses and defenses are usually fairly bland. On the flip-side, Martindale felt his unit in this opener was tame, compared with what he plans to unleash in the regular season. After all, the Ravens in 2018, 2019 and 2020 were first in the league in blitz percentage with Martindale calling the shots. With the Ravens decimated by injuries in 2021, Martindale scaled back, somewhat — the Ravens were sixth in the league in blitz percentage. 

Wink Martindale
Wink Martindale has empowered the Giants’ defensive players.

Rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, second-year Azeez Ojulari (once he returns from a strained hamstring) and defensive lineman Leonard Williams figure to be the team’s top pass-rushers. But wait, there’s more. Martindale has this funky conviction that anyone and everyone he suits up for the game can and will get the opposing quarterback. You get a jersey, you get to hunt for a sack. 

“With Wink, everybody who gets off the bus can blitz,’’ said outside linebackers coach Dean Wilkins, who was with Martindale for a decade with the Ravens. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a corner, a safety, inside ’backer, everybody can line up everywhere and attack that quarterback. With that, everybody’s gonna know a lot of different spots and everybody’s gonna be able to do a lot of different things.’’ 

Linebacker Blake Martinez, who meshed so well with former Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, says Martindale “allows the players to be in positions that they can thrive at, and he trusts his guys to go out there, and he gives a lot of freedom to maneuver around and communicate as a defense.’’ 

Martinez has 13 career sacks in six years. It would not surprise anyone if Martinez, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, challenges or breaks his single-season high of five sacks with the Packers in 2018. 

“The system promotes confidence to go, and the system and the way Wink coaches it empowers guys to go,’’ said Henderson, who was retained from Joe Judge’s staff. “I’ve seen guys who I didn’t think were great blitzers and they’re coming free. We didn’t bring ’em a lot last year, and they’re all learning and growing and progressing as blitzers. The system promotes that, Wink promotes it, and it’s been fun to be a part of.’’ 

Wink Martindale on the field before the Giants' preseason game against the Patriots.
Wink Martindale on the field before the Giants’ preseason game against the Patriots.
Getty Images

Linebacker Austin Calitro, a well-traveled 28-year-old signed in late July, was with the Bengals last season and as a scout team player in practice mimicked Martindale’s defense when preparing for games against the Ravens. Calitro liked what he was asked to do and thought, “This is pretty fun.’’ Now he is on the inside with Martindale. 

“Now being here, up close and in person, you can tell there’s a method behind the madness,’’ Calitro said. “It’s fun being a part of this defense when everyone does their jobs the right way.’’ 

Andy Bischoff, the new tight ends coach, was previously with the Ravens as an offensive assistant and spent many practice sessions trying to figure out how to combat Martindale’s deployment of his defensive personnel. 

“The multiple ways they come at you,’’ Bischoff said. “How they utilize talent, how they move ’em around, the multiple changing looks, it’s a challenge every day, and it helps us prepare for the season. Both sides of the ball give their players opportunities. Wink is unique in that they give them more opportunities.’’ 

So many players will be given more opportunities to show what they can do when let loose to rush the passer. Let the empowerment begin.