It is said the eyes are the windows to the soul. For Eric Weddle, his entire face conveys plenty.
It's true the 31-year-old safety needs his eyes to survey defensive teammates pushing away from him and the offensive skill players coming toward him. Those eyes helped him lead the San Diego Chargers in tackles four times and took him to three Pro Bowls.
But on the Ravens' practice field, the smile and enthusiasm radiating from Weddle's mouth and cheeks is indicative of someone who seems rejuvenated, having the time of his life with an organization that not only wanted him, but needed someone of his ilk to bolster an inconsistent secondary.
Plus, while many are fascinated with his thick, flowing beard, Weddle brings to the table a chin made of granite, hardened not only by frequent and severe collisions with ball carriers, but by the determination to be the best he, and his team, can be.
Weddle's jaw practically sets in place as he excitedly talks about his goals for his first season with the Ravens after nine with the Chargers, five of which resulted in no playoff appearances.
"We want to be a great defense, and it starts by all 11 playing together, all on the same page, all playing as one, knowing what to do, executing your assignment and playing together and being all in," Weddle said. "Coach [John Harbaugh] had a great point: You're either with us or you're not, and if you're not, get out of the way.
"It's true. You have to be committed. I think everyone here is, and it's just exciting. It's exciting to see the commitment, the energy and the thoughts of what you want to get out of this season, and that's winning a lot of games."
At first, Weddle and his Charger teammates did exactly that, winning three straight AFC West championships and landing an AFC Championship Game berth during his first three years in the league. But things soon soured.
Only one playoff appearance would follow in the ensuing six seasons, and when Weddle was suspended for not reporting to the locker room at halftime of a 2015 game so he could watch his daughter -- he and his wife, Chanel, have four children -- participate in a halftime show, it made for a messy ending to what had seemed like a hand-in-glove relationship.
But as comfortable as the San Diego fit may have seemed, Weddle's eyes turned toward Baltimore, and he signed a four-year, $26 million contract in mid-March.
With Weddle beaming uncontrollably, the Ravens' fan base saw the secondary's new face put itself front and center from Day One.
"This is what I want, and I've always wanted it," Weddle said at the time. "It's just an honor and a privilege coach Harbaugh and the front office decided they wanted me just as much.
"And when it comes down to it, coming from a place that didn't want me, to now coming to a place that would do anything to get it, it means the world, and I'm forever indebted to this organization by playing my best and doing whatever I can to help win."
The Ravens' secondary needs some help; it was part of a defense that allowed 51 plays of 20 or more yards last year, as well as eight touchdown passes that covered 30 or more yards.
Thanks to more disciplined play, Baltimore did field the league's best pass defense during the final eight weeks, but the Ravens were ranked 10th in that category and haven't been higher than that since 2011, when they were fourth.
Plus, a combination of 26 touchdown passes allowed to wide receivers (the league's second most) and a mere five interceptions by defensive backs meant that changes had to be made.
In other words, the secondary needed a new face.
"It's awesome. I'm learning so much from him," said converted cornerback Lardarius Webb, Weddle's new safety partner. "He's a great leader. He's our Joe Flacco on the defense. He keeps everything going. [He is an] awesome guy -- awesome locker room guy. He's great in the meetings. I can't speak enough great things about the guy. [I'm] just happy to have him here to make us better.
"A lot of guys are feeding off of his energy. I'm bringing the same type of energy. I've been here, and the guys look up to me also. So to have both of us back on the back end is big for the defense -- for the team."
Webb's opinion of Weddle is especially important, since the tandem looks to be the best implementation yet of a philosophy that throws out the traditional roles of free and strong safety.
Given the nature of Weddle's play in San Diego, it would stand to reason he would be one who plays closer to the box and gets involved more in the running game, while free safety Webb would roam the deep center of the field -- like his idol, Ed Reed -- and try to bait the quarterback into throwing interceptions.
But with the two being more interchangeable and blurring traditional lines, they have worked mainly on communicating better with each other so the big-play tendencies of the past could be eliminated.
"The communication, up to this point, has been pretty good," first-year secondary coach Leslie Frazier said during training camp. "It is something you are always working on as you are doing the installation, because there are new calls and new adjustments.
"You need safeties that are vocal to really get that communicator across the board. I think our communication, for the most part, has been pretty good."
It will need to be, as the faces in the Ravens' safety corps seem to have dramatically changed.
Two highly drafted safeties from the team's not-too-distant past, Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks, are no longer on the Ravens' active roster; Elam was placed on injured reserve after final cuts, while Brooks was waived and subsequently signed by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Anthony Levine has proven to be tough and versatile enough to break out of his special teams role and occasionally play sub-package linebacker as well as safety, while returnee Kendrick Lewis has plenty of starting experience with the Ravens and Houston Texans.
Through attrition and attitude, the safeties are taking on Weddle's very face and personality.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help [Webb] -- help whoever is playing with me," Weddle said. "In the end, if we don't work on the same page and work together, then we're not going to be good."
The Ravens hope things change for the better in the secondary and that Weddle's beaming face becomes contagious.
has been covering professional football since 1994
Issue 225: September 2016