clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Facing offensive uncertainty, Ravens will look to Mike Macdonald’s defense for stability

Macdonald will return personnel allowing him to advance his scheme tremendously

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens’ offense has major question marks heading into the 2023 offseason.

Who will be their offensive coordinator? Will they sign Lamar Jackson to a new contract, could they trade him? How will they revamp their wide receiver room after Rashod Bateman’s injury left them scrambling for DeSean Jackson and Sammy Watkins? All of these questions leave the Ravens looking for answers as key dates approach.

The Ravens will inevitably franchise tag Lamar Jackson, who will then carry a $32 million cap hit at the start of free agency on March 15. That’s currently $5 million more than the Ravens have, according to Over The Cap. That number will turn into $45.6 million on April 21, five days before the draft. In the meantime, Baltimore has interviewed a dozen candidates for their offensive coordinator opening. They’ve now moved on to the second round of interviews with several of them, while possibly waiting on conversations with those who will be coaching in the Super Bowl.

As the Ravens sort through franchise-defining moves on offense, they have to be incredibly pleased with the process and results that first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald accomplished in 2022. Macdonald, who is 35-years-old, was able to continue building upon the great defensive minds that have preceded him in Baltimore.

His defense finished Top-10 in the following areas:

  1. Points allowed
  2. Yards allowed
  3. Takeaways
  4. Passing touchdowns allowed
  5. Rushing yards, touchdowns and yards per attempt allowed
  6. Third down stop percentage
  7. Red zone stop percentage
  8. Sacks

Macdonald’s defense, particularly once the Ravens acquired star linebacker Roquan Smith, materialized into the vision that the Ravens had when they decided to part ways with former defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Macdonald’s defense shares many similarities with Baylor head coach Dave Aranda’s philosophies and is much like a Swiss Army knife. It is simple yet provides the tools to be multifaceted to a seemingly infinite degree.

Macdonald presented offenses with a limited number of fronts and pressure looks, yet made it possible for any player to be blitzing or dropping into coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens had 35 different defensive players rush the passer at least once. Only Macdonald’s predecessor, Wink Martindale, rushed more (36). While Macdonald’s reliance on five and six man rushes wasn’t nearly as high, the usage of bluffing and overloading pressure remained intact.

One of the things that stands out about Macdonald’s pressures are the way he lies to quarterbacks and their protection. So often the Ravens defense would show pressure outside to bring pressure inside, or show pressure to the weak side to bring pressure to the strong side. Extending further, in pass situations the Ravens frequently aimed to give a different post-snap picture than they presented pre-snap. The Ravens’ pressures typically dropped three deep coverage defenders accompanied by four underneath zone defenders. This put a lid on offenses ability to generate explosive plays, particularly blown coverages, while overwhelming one side of pass protection using first and second level players.

The trio of Patrick Queen, Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton became interchangeable in the terms of showing pressure versus bringing pressure. Over the final four games of the season, Queen, Hamilton and Smith rushed the passer 18, 14 and 14 times respectively, which generated 15 pressures and three sacks down the stretch. On the season, the trio’s “PRP” — defined by Pro Football Focus as a “formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer” — ranked first, second and third on the Ravens defense.

Macdonald’s deceptive practice in showing a quarterback one thing and delivering another is accompanied with a flame retardant defensive front that fundamentally whooped single blocks and stifled opposing run games all season. The Ravens’ defensive line, coached by former Ravens’ player Anthony Weaver, played fundamentally sound football. Their ability to stack, peek and shed blocks despite missing their starting nose-tackle, Michael Pierce, allowed second level defenders to mirror backs and attack their gaps with ferocity.

Excluding kneel downs and scrambles, the Ravens defense allowed only 3.8 yards per attempt, which was the third best figure in the league. After the Ravens acquired Smith, that number was only 3.4 yards per attempt while holding opponents to -0.15 EPA per attempt according to Sports Info Solutions — the fifth best mark in the NFL.

Macdonald’s unit, which simplified things in terms of alignment and fronts, will retain most of last year’s key players. As things stand, the following Ravens defenders are free agents:

  • Justin Houston
  • Marcus Peters
  • Brent Urban
  • Kyle Fuller
  • Jason Pierre-Paul

It’s TBD whether the Ravens bring back safety Chuck Clark, who has started 52/53 games over their last three seasons including the postseason. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell has also been mulling retirement while he has one year remaining on his current contract. The Ravens essentially need to find answers opposite of Marlon Humphrey at cornerback, an edge rusher or two and some defensive line help. As their offensive question marks linger, Baltimore’s defense is set to return most of its starters. They will be in a position to expand a group that Macdonald simplified and made easier to come in and learn for rookies or free agents.

The Ravens will look towards Macdonald to provide a foundation upon which their offense can lean on as they transition into a new system. That system will likely feature new pass catchers and perhaps a new quarterback. It will be interesting to see if or how Macdonald will look to expand the scheme he deploys. The simplicity of their scheme allows the Ravens defenders to pick up the playbook quickly, play fast and comprehend the entirety of their defense while still creating guesswork for opposing offenses. The system that they have bodes well for defending play action and forcing an offense to feel like they need to keep in additional pass blockers. In turn, that limits their capacity to force defensive mistakes and get the ball out quickly.

Baltimore has spent a great deal in terms of draft picks and overall capital defensively. They feature homegrown first-round picks in Odafe Oweh, Humphrey, Queen and Hamilton. They also gave Smith the largest amount of guarantees for a linebacker in NFL history and signed safety Marcus Williams to a near top-of-market contract last offseason.

With a few tweaks defensively, it’s time for Baltimore to use their capital on the other side of the football. That will shift the onus to Macdonald’s unit to make what they have work as they look to turn the chapter into a new era of Ravens football. With a seemingly precise and fast flowing system in place, the 35-year-old should be up to the task.