The familiar face arrived just as Arthur Maulet was leaving. The Ravens cornerback had finished a workout in the team’s weight room when he recognized an employee from the team’s cafeteria. He was there to lift, too. This, Maulet was coming to learn, was the norm in Baltimore.

“I’m like, ‘Damn, everybody’s buff around here,’” he recalled thinking. “Everybody works.”

In rolling to an AFC North title and the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed, the Ravens have flexed their Super Bowl bona fides. They will enter Saturday’s divisional-round game against the fourth-seeded Houston Texans with the NFL’s most complete resume and probably its Most Valuable Player, quarterback Lamar Jackson, headlining a team with an elite offense, defense and special teams.

But there is perhaps no more telling testament to the team’s power than the regular-season testimonies to their actual strength. After a 28-3 loss in Week 4, Cleveland Browns safety Juan Thornhill said the Ravens “ran the ball down our throats.” After a 38-6 loss in Week 7, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell said the Ravens “kicked our ass.” After a 56-19 loss in Week 17, Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Zach Sieler said the game was “just what you expect. The Ravens are going to play hard-nose football.”

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It is an organizational standard in Baltimore. Four years ago, when the Ravens won a franchise-record 14 games, players and coaches wore T-shirts that read: “Nobody cares, work harder.” Four years later, that message has softened somewhat in the weight room. This season, their first since an offseason reshuffling of their strength and conditioning staff, the Ravens are still working hard. There’s just more care involved.

In interviews with a dozen Ravens players over the past two weeks, a near-unanimous portrait of a more accommodating, more individualized strength and conditioning program under new coordinator Scott Elliott emerged. While players were largely reluctant to criticize former head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders, whom the team parted ways with in February, they said they welcomed the new regime’s culture. Those interviewed noted the changes to the atmosphere inside the team’s weight room and praised the responsiveness of the team’s staff.

“It was really an evolution of what we’ve been doing,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We felt we were doing a lot of great things in the weight room [under Saunders]. We felt like we had a very good program. … Scott stepped in — and in maybe a little bit of a tough circumstance, right? — and just handled it gracefully and aggressively and did a great job. He’s one of the stars of the season — not just Scott, but the whole group [of strength coaches].

“That weight room is one of the stars of the season, for sure. They’ve just done phenomenal. The guys love going in there; they work really hard. I think it’s very comprehensive in what we do.”

A new vision

Change had seemed inevitable. In March, the team’s strength staff received an F-minus grade in an NFL Players Association survey of players, by far the league’s worst mark. Players had provided feedback from March 1, 2022, to April 1, 2022, according to the players’ union. Fewer than 40% of Ravens players said they received an individual plan for their strength training, according to the survey.

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By then, the Ravens had already moved on from Saunders, who’d also come under fire for his role in the team’s coronavirus outbreak in 2020 as well as the historic injury toll that derailed a promising 2021 season.

“Things move for different kinds of reasons, and I think what Steve did for us, what he brought to this thing for the last eight years, was pretty revolutionary itself,” Harbaugh, a longtime Saunders ally, said in March. “We are one of the strongest teams in football, one of the most physical teams in football, one of the most conditioned teams in football. That’s why our record in December and January is really pretty phenomenal — November, December and January. It’s pretty remarkable. So a lot of that has to do with the way we condition. So I appreciate Steve in that sense.”

The Ravens looked in-house for Saunders’ replacement, naming Elliott, who was then entering his fifth year on staff, their strength and conditioning coordinator. Anthony Watson and Ron Shrift were also retained as strength and conditioning coaches, while Kaelyn Buskey was promoted from intern to assistant coach. Sam Rosengarten, who helps oversee the team’s player-tracking data, was promoted from football performance coach to football performance coordinator.

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Elliott’s history with the team’s returning players, as well as those who’d been retained, helped ease the change in leadership, according to those interviewed. (Elliott was not available to comment; the Ravens’ strength and conditioning coaches typically do not speak to reporters during the season.)

“I think Scott had a very good relationship from the start with so many guys because he wasn’t that head guy,” fullback Patrick Ricard said. A self-described “meathead,” Ricard said he “personally liked” Saunders, but acknowledged that “some guys just didn’t like him personally or his workouts.”

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“We know that he [Elliott] cares so much about us and wants the best for us. … He had a great relationship with so many guys that I think that’s why Harbaugh was like, ‘Hey, this guy has been here. I see how hard he works. I see how much he cares about the relationships he has with his guys.’ He had his own vision of what he wanted things to look like, and now that he has the opportunity to do it, I think it’s going well for him.”

‘Detail-oriented’ approach

Changes to the team’s training regimen came almost immediately. Ricard said that during offseason workouts, Elliott broke down the team’s strength and conditioning program into phases, focusing on, say, explosion for one two-week period and on power for another period. Elliott also explained the intent behind each program.

“They’re very understanding of translating the weight room to the practice field,” wide receiver Tylan Wallace said. “It’s not just always all about, ‘Oh, go in there, lift heavy weights and go practice,’ you know what I mean? They kind of understand what we need to do in the weight room for us to be successful and stay healthy on the field. So I think they have a pretty good understanding of that, and they understand what everybody needs and what everybody doesn’t need, and I think that helps translate onto the field.”

With the Ravens’ staff kept mostly intact — along with Elliott, both Shrift and Watson had served on Saunders’ staff for several years — their strength and conditioning program wasn’t so much overhauled as it was tweaked. Players said some weightlifting “staples” under Saunders remain part of their workouts, but that the programming has been more adaptable.

The Ravens have also continued to take more of a holistic approach to building up and maintaining bodies. Players said the team has emphasized flexibility, with yoga sessions offered in the offseason and during the season. Rookie inside linebacker Trenton Simpson said he’s learned recovery methods from coaches and veterans, incorporating hot- and cold-tub immersion into his physical therapy. Everything from sleep to stretching has been stressed; rookie outside linebacker Tavius Robinson called the team’s staff “really detail-oriented.”

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“They know how the stuff works,” Robinson said. “They know how the movements are supposed to be performed, and they come up with great plans for us to keep us feeling good for the game and keep us feeling good during the season.”

Striking a balance

That includes knowing when to ease up. Brent Urban, who’d worked with Saunders over two separate stints in Baltimore, said he didn’t “really have any qualms” with Saunders’ approach to strength training. As a defensive lineman, he was used to lifting heavy.

But under Elliott, Urban said, the Ravens’ strength staff better caters its workout regimens to certain positions. Urban, who’s played in all 17 games this season, said this is “probably the best my body’s felt this far into the season” in his six seasons in Baltimore. He said Harbaugh has done a “great job” hiring staff members who “can understand not to kind of beat us up early in the season.”

“They kind of understand it from more of a player’s perspective instead of kind of the old mindset, where it’s just, like, trying to beat the crap out of us and toughen us up and that kind of thing,” Urban added. “I think there’s a balance to it.”

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Maulet, who signed with the Ravens in late July, dealt with minor hip and knee injuries during the regular season. He said Watson, who works with the team’s defensive backs, did a “really good job” with his rehabilitation, making sure Maulet was vigilant about his recovery, even on off days, and checking in to make sure “that I’m mentally there, too.”

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Crucially, Maulet said, the Ravens’ staff treats banged-up players with an appreciation for the difference between “injured” and “hurt.”

“Don’t baby us; we’re all professionals,” he said. “If I’m injured, I definitely can’t run full speed. I can’t fight through it with the mental capacity, obviously. The pain’s holding me back. But if I’m hurt, bro, a couple Tylenols won’t hurt it, you know what I’m saying? You’ve just got to have the mental aspect just to push through most of the time.”

Players called the Ravens’ staff more responsive to their needs than in years past. Right guard Kevin Zeitler said workouts are “a little more individualized,” reflecting not only a player’s position but also their age and workload. Ricard said that when he’s told Elliott about a bothersome injury, Ricard’s workout plan has changed, with more suitable exercises substituted and the team’s athletic training staff also looped in. Wallace said the Ravens’ staff has accommodated requests before workouts, tailoring them to “what you feel like you need, or what they feel like you need.”

“Scott does a really good job,” safety Geno Stone said. “It’s definitely different from how Steve went about it. I feel like it’s more personalized and kind of works around how you feel and what you need for your body.”

“He’s been big on that,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said of Elliott. “And I think that’s what really helped us be this healthy until this point.”

‘Better vibes’

The best measure of the Ravens’ strength and conditioning makeover might not be their record or their injury list or any personal-best bench press marks. It might be how often players end up finding their way back to the weight room during downtime at the team facility.

“You’ve got a lot of guys here that just want to work out,” left guard John Simpson said. “And I feel like that’s a big part of it, too.”

Under Saunders, Ricard said, there was “a little more tension” in the weight room. Under Elliott, there are “better vibes all around.” The sprawling space itself is more player-friendly, with a couple of new big-screen TVs showing game film and motivational quotes, Robinson said, and a sound system playing songs from a team-curated playlist.

Players joked that the defensive line, in particular, practically lives in the weight room. Robinson said Friday is “arm day” for the defensive front, with linemen and linebackers hitting their biceps, triceps and a “little quick speed bench” to get one last pump in before the weekend.

“It’s almost like a competitive vibe,” defensive lineman Justin Madubuike said. “When you have a lot of hungry dogs ready to get better, just one day at a time, everybody enjoys not only seeing each other at work, but working out with each other in the weight room and just pushing each other.

“The sense of accountability as well, I feel like guys that didn’t play as well or didn’t take this block the way they wanted to [will say], ‘Hey, bro, just get right in the weight room, bro. Let’s do extra abs. Let’s do extra core.’ Stuff like that. Because we all have one goal in mind: win a Super Bowl. So we need to help each other out. Because the only people that are going to beat us are ourselves, I believe.”

Maulet said it’s as if “everybody speaks the same language around the building” — including his head coach. A couple of Harbaugh’s morning workouts at the team facility have overlapped with his own. Maulet marveled at how hard the Ravens’ staff was pushing the 61-year-old.

“When I see Harbs getting under the rack, I’m like, ‘Shit, I got to get my stuff together,’” Maulet said, chuckling. “He’s over here, bright and early, getting it in. Bro, it’s just a great way of motivating each other. We all work hard. We all push each other. And I think that’s the difference between winning and losing.”

Baltimore Banner columnist Kyle Goon and reporter Giana Han contributed to this story.