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Ravens News 1/31: Dominant Pass Rush and more

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Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

From stretching the field to consistent pass rush, here’s what the Ravens can learn from the NFL’s final four - Jonas Shaffer

Stretch the field

The Rams’ Matthew Stafford (14 completions), Bengals’ Burrow (12) and Chiefs’ Mahomes (nine) finished first, tied for second and tied for 12th in the NFL this season, respectively, in completions of 30-plus air yards, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Jackson and the Ravens are still looking for that kind of downfield connection. His accuracy on attempts of at least 30 air yards has fallen from 36.8% in 2019 to 27.8% in 2020 to 21.7% this season. On deep throws when he wasn’t pressured, according to SIS, Jackson went 2-for-13 in 2020 and 3-for-15 in 2021.

Find a dominant pass rusher

The Ravens don’t have a pass-rush star. Not yet. Coaches have stressed that sacks should not define the group’s play — “Our No. 1 ingredient to winning games, playing winning defense, is execution,” outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said before the season — but a tepid pass rush handcuffed the defense at times in 2021. The Ravens finished with 34 sacks in 17 games and the NFL’s ninth-worst pressure rate (23%), according to Pro Football Reference, despite posting one of the league’s highest blitz rates.

Build up the offensive line

PFF’s final offensive line rankings for the 2021 season doubled as a guide for how to pave a playoff path. Seven of the top 10 teams made the postseason, including the third-ranked 49ers (headlined by All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams), fifth-ranked Chiefs (highlighted by left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and star rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith) and seventh-ranked Rams (led by stout bookend tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein).

In Mike Macdonald, Ravens turn to a fresh but familiar face to fill their defensive coordinator void - Jeff Zrebiec

Unlike many of the previous Ravens defensive coordinators, Macdonald isn’t inheriting a star-studded defense well stocked with Pro Bowlers and dotted with a future Hall of Famer or two. The Ravens have Pro Bowl-caliber corners coming off season-ending injuries in Humphrey and Marcus Peters, a few talented young players still trying to gain their footing in the NFL in Queen, Odafe Oweh and Justin Madubuike, and questions at all three levels of their defense.

The Ravens’ defensive tradition makes this a coveted job, but there is a ton of work to do. Harbaugh is taking a leap of faith that Macdonald will be able to pull it all together.

Macdonald’s impact at Michigan was certainly immediate. His unit finished as the eighth-ranked scoring defense and the 20th-ranked defense overall. Using a 3-4 approach the Ravens have also favored, Macdonald relied heavily on edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who are expected to be first-round picks in April’s draft, and mixing up coverages on the back end.

Before the Wolverines’ Orange Bowl loss to eventual national champion Georgia, Michigan’s defense succeeded in consistently applying pressure to quarterbacks and limiting big plays, two areas that flummoxed the Ravens throughout the 2021 season.

It’s premature to suggest what the Ravens defense will look like with Macdonald making the calls. Harbaugh is an ardent believer in maintaining an aggressive defense. Macdonald will undoubtedly have his own wrinkles and ways of doing things, but he’s spent much of his coaching career in Baltimore. Those factors don’t foreshadow a dramatic shift in scheme and style.

New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald might be Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s successor - Mike Preston

Macdonald is a younger version of Harbaugh when he was hired as the Ravens coach in 2008. He fits the mold of the new wave of leaders in the NFL: young, fit, has a master’s degree in sports management, graduated summa cum laude at the University of Georgia and is into analytics.

Maybe almost as important is the owner’s stated belief in continuity. Except for one year as Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season, Macdonald had been with the Ravens in some capacity since 2014.

He’ll get along well with Harbaugh, at least for a few years. Harbaugh likes assistants who are “yes” men. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees wasn’t, and neither was Martindale, which is one of the reasons Martindale left Baltimore. Until Macdonald gains experience, Harbaugh will be calling a lot of shots, which is to be expected.

50 Words or Less - John Eisenberg

It’s hard not to give a thumbs-up to hiring Mike Macdonald as defensive coordinator. Steeped in the Ravens’ ways yet sprung from a new generation, he projects to hit that sweet spot between tradition and invention. My hunch is some bedrock concepts will go unchanged while others get major makeovers.

In a way, the hiring is as bold as going for two to try to win a game. Macdonald is familiar, smart, rightfully viewed as a rising star, but he’s also so young he has little history as a signal-caller, and now it’s on him to fix a legendary unit.

The way Macdonald intensified Michigan’s pass rush surely helped him stand out, because that’s exactly what needs to happen here as the Ravens come to grips with facing Joe Burrow twice a year. The Titans sacked him nine times last week, and although they lost, it was a great equalizer.

Top Free-Agent Defensive Lineman, Edge Rusher for Ravens - Todd Karpovich

Interior Defensive Lineman

1. AKIEM HICKS

PFF Free Agency Rank: 18

2021 Snaps: 304

2021 PFF grade: 72.3 (23rd of 125)

Projected contract: 2 yrs — $8.5m avg/yr

4. B.J. HILL

PFF Free Agency Rank: 74

2021 Snaps: 564

2021 PFF grade: 69.8 (30th of 125)

Projected contract: 3 yrs — $8.75m avg/yr

Edge

1. CHANDLER JONES

PFF Free Agency Rank: 4

2021 Snaps: 875

2021 PFF grade: 68.1 (42nd of 114)

Projected contract: 2 yrs — $16.75m avg/yr

5. EMMANUEL OGBAH

PFF Free Agency Rank: 22

2021 Snaps: 755

2021 PFF grade: 77.0 (19th of 114)

Projected contract: 3 yrs — $15.5m avg/yr