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Ravens Insider: For Ravens DC Zach Orr, ‘ultimate chess piece’ Kyle Hamilton is a nice place to start

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Zach Orr is new to being the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, but he’s anything but to the entirety of players he’s now in charge of.

“That’s been my guy over the past two years,” third-year and All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton said. “I feel like everybody in the building would say that as well. He’s a great dude. He’s been here, obviously — been a Raven — for a while [as a] player and coach.

“It was a seamless transition, and he’s got a great grasp of the defense, as well, and he’s going to put us in the right spots [to] help us make plays, help us maximize our abilities.”

Undrafted out of North Texas in 2014, Orr signed with Baltimore and in 2016 became a starting weak-side linebacker, recording 132 tackles, five passes defensed, three interceptions and a forced fumble. But by 2017, his playing days were over because of a congenital neck/spine condition and his second career began, first as a defensive analyst with the Ravens and then as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ outside linebacker coach in 2021.

A year later, Orr returned to Baltimore as inside linebackers coach and earlier this year was promoted to defensive coordinator when Mike Macdonald departed to become the Seattle Seahawks’ coach, so familiarity with his vociferous presence is not surprising.

But it will be an adjustment for Orr. At age 31, he is the second-youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL behind the Arizona Cardinals’ Nick Rallis, and this will be his first season calling plays.

“It’s just taking it day by day,” Orr said Thursday when asked how comfortable he is at doing so after a few days of organized team activities. “You definitely get more comfortable.”

One way he’ll do so in the weeks and months ahead before the start of the regular season Sept. 5 at Arrowhead Stadium against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs is by operating without a script during a portion of practice.

The sessions are what coach John Harbaugh calls “move the ball” and “call-it periods.”

“You have to call it and you have to think on the fly and use your play-calling sheet,” Orr said. “And just how I prepare, I just go back and — when I’m watching the film or watching games from last year — just look at how I would call it, looking at the situation [and] trying to put myself in those shoes. And then, just before practice, just reviewing my play-call sheet and just trying to play out scenarios in my head that could possibly come up.”

It helps, of course, that he has one of the league’s best defenses at his disposal.

Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton, left, works out with cornerback Tre Swilling during team OTA open practice session. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)
Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton, left, works with cornerback Tre Swilling during Wednesday’s practice. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

Last season, Baltimore became the first team to lead the league in sacks, takeaways and points allowed per game. And while the Ravens lost a few notable players on defense in free agency — notably inside linebacker Patrick Queen, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and safety Geno Stone — they still have All-Pro talent at every level of the defense. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Madubuike led all interior linemen with 13 sacks last season, while inside linebacker Roquan Smith and Hamilton were both All-Pro selections.

“Kyle Hamilton is the ultimate chess piece; I think he’s one of the top players in the league,” Orr said of the versatile 2022 14th overall draft pick. “My goal for him is to one day win defensive MVP — here — of the league. I think he has that type of talent, he has that type of work ethic, he’s that type of person.

“The thing about him being the ultimate chess piece [is], depending on what the offense does, he can play anywhere. He can play safety, deep safety, box safety; he can play corner, he can play nickel, he can play backer, he can even play outside linebacker, too, and you guys know he can rush the passer. … He can handle all the different volume that you give him.”

Which is one reason why Orr will deploy him much the way his predecessor did and keep the same defensive scheme and principles, albeit with his own twist.

He’ll also lean on the experience of Smith, the vocal and emotional leader at the center of the defense who led the Ravens with 158 tackles last season and is entering his seventh season in the NFL after being traded from the Chicago Bears midway through the 2022 season.

“We’re comfortable talking to each other, sharing ideas, sharing thoughts with one another, we respect one another, so it’s easier,” Orr said. “He’s one of the best players in this league and one of the best humans walking this earth. And then, when you have one of your best players being one of your best workers, everyone else looks at that and gets inspired.”

As for Orr, he will be tested early and often with games against the Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and Cinicinnati Bengals in the first five weeks of the season.

Just how different will this year’s defense look from last year’s?

“There have been a lot of similarities,” Hamilton said. “But again, it’s still May, so we’ll see how that looks in August, September. Getting ready for the season, I’m sure we’ll add more layers to that, but I can already see there are different wrinkles and stuff like that. Same family, but I feel like Z.O. has his own flavor he’s going to put on it, and I’m excited to see what he does.”

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