After agreeing to a mutual parting of ways with Don ‘Wink’ Martindale, the Baltimore Ravens filled the vacant defensive coordinator position on their coaching staff with a familiar face when they hired Mike Macdonald.
He was on the team’s defensive staff from 2014-2020 and is returning to serve under John Harbaugh following a one-year stint with Jim Harbaugh as the play caller of a ferocious Michigan Wolverines defense.
While the team has yet to put on pads and training camp is still over a month away, less for rookies, Ravens players have already begun to express their excitement and eagerness about his teaching method.
“He teaches a good defense, and he puts it in a way that we’re able to learn it – learn it fast and efficiently so we can come out here and practice and put it together,” safety Marcus Williams. “Right now, it’s all about dissecting the defense, learning what you have to do and what we have to do. We don’t just play one position; we can play each position. He puts it like that for us so that we know everything, really.”
Macdonald takes a holistic approach when it comes to instructing his players on how to digest and operate in his scheme. He requires players at every level to not only know how to play multiple positions but know the responsibilities of others in the defense so that they can limit mistakes that lead to big plays for opposing offenses and maximize their ability to make plays and get off the field.
“I like that, because it’s not anybody just focusing on their job right now. It’s everybody knowing what everybody has to do,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “Say if you’re in the game and somebody doesn’t know what they have to do, and they’re sitting there communicating with you and you’re talking, you might say something that they need to know, or they might say something wrong and you’ll be like, ‘No, you’ve got this.’ So, now that everybody knows what everybody is doing, it just benefits the whole defense now.”
Macdonald believes that having players gain a deeper knowledge of other positions and where they will be in relation to them on the field could be a “huge advantage” in the defensive backfield especially.
“The more we keep offenses guessing and the more that we’re putting our best guys out there that can go play fast, just the better off, and this is the time of year to try those things out,” Macdonald said. “As we get closer to kickoff, then we’ll start narrowing it down, so we can go play.”
He comes from a defensive coaching tree that included some play callers who loved to disguise coverages, scheme up exotic pressures and utilize versatile defenders as strategic chess pieces. His predecessor, Martindale, is a mastermind when it came to showing one look pre-snap, whether it was a certain blitz or coverage, before deploying one that was completely different or a combination of both after the ball was snapped. Macdonald appears to be keeping that effective tradition alive.
“A lot of times, if you show this, you play this; if you show this, you play this. Sometimes we’ll show opposite; sometimes we’ll show this; sometimes we’ll show exactly what we’re doing,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “I think it will definitely keep the offense guessing a lot more than what we’ve been in the past.
The All Pro is one of many players that are “really excited” for Macdonald’s return in his new role and followed him closely during his year away. Humphrey possess the kind of the positional versatility that will allow him to thrive in this scheme given that he can play inside the slot at nickel and on the outside at an elite level.
“I really just like the flexibility that I’ve been seeing with what he’s been doing,” Humphrey said. “We want to have it to where any (defensive back) can play any position at any time. I think that’s kind of the vision I’ve seen behind it. I’m getting reps inside; I’m going to get some reps at safety; get some reps here; Chuck [Clark] comes down and plays corner. So, I think that flexibility is going to make us be able to do a lot of good things in the secondary.”
Humphrey played collegiately at the University of Alabama where he starred for the legendary defensive-minded head coach, Nick Saban. In his first five years in the league he made a name for himself in the pros under the tutelage of Martindale and Dean Pees as a rookie. Yet he said Macdonald’s unique approach is unlike anything he’s ever seen and believes it will lead to better cohesion at all three levels of the defense.
“He’s really having everybody understand the whole philosophy of mainly just the group of a coverage, as opposed to, ‘You’ve got this call. How do you play this call?’ He’s kind of saying, ‘Grouping these calls all together, what is the whole idea of this call?’,” Humphrey said. “I think he’s done a really good job of kind of really helping us all be smarter, to where I know what the D-line is doing; I also know what the linebacker is doing; I also know that the safety is doing, because it’s, ‘The reason why I call this defense is because of this.’ And so, it’s been really unique, and I really like how he did the early-on part of the offseason program, with kind of just explaining different things to us and kind of making us smarter football players.”
Second year outside linebacker Odafe Oweh is coming off a strong rookie campaign and didn’t have a preexisting relationship with Macdonald like Humphrey, Queen and others. However, after watching him guide his close friend and former high school teammate, David Ojabo, to a highly productive breakout season in 2021, he is champing at the bit to take the next step in 2022.
“I love Coach Mike already,” Oweh said. “When I first got here, he laid it down for me and told me what he expected of me and what he wanted. He wanted me here [for OTAs] and everything. I’m buying in. I think a lot of the other guys are buying in as well.”
Veteran defensive end Calais Campbell only knew Macdonald during his first year in Baltimore before the coordinator left for the college ranks. He said the two had many great conversations where they shared their love for the game and history of football. Both are 35-years-old although Campbell will be 36 by the the time the season starts. The six-time Pro Bowler praises his new play caller as “highly intelligent” and likes the energy he brings.
“He brings a unique perspective, and I think that the guys really connect with him. I’m excited to see what he does for us this year,” Campbell said. “I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together just on defense. It’s going to be special.”