The Baltimore Ravens fielded the best defense in the league during the 2023 season that not only stacks up with some of the all-time units but made history by becoming the first to at least tie for the league lead in sacks, takeaways, and points allowed per game. After two years of being the unit’s designer and orchestrator, former Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald was hired to be the next head coach of the Seattle Seahawks last week.
While he has pretty big shoes to fill with his new organization in the Pacific Northwest after Super Bowl-winning Head Coach Pete Carroll stepped down, filling his shoes in Charm City will be a tall task as well. However, the Ravens believe that his successor, Zach Orr, is not only up for it but is confident that he’ll be able to uphold the team’s historically dominant defensive standards and field another elite unit in 2024.
Coach Harbaugh talks about Mike Macdonald taking the head coaching job in Seattle, promoting Zach Orr to defensive coordinator and the overall defensive coaching staff. pic.twitter.com/KEVNPnjjfw— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) February 2, 2024
“With Zach and the guys that we have on defense and some of the younger coaches that are already here including [Outside Linebackers Coach] Chuck Smith – those guys are going to build another great defense, and I’m going to be in the middle of it, just like I’m in the middle of the offense and special teams,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m going to lean on those guys and trust those guys and empower those guys to build a great defense.”
A former standout NFL linebacker, Orr is no stranger to adversity or exceeding expectations. After going undrafted in 2014 out of the University of North Texas, he made the final roster as a rookie and worked his way up from being a core special teams contributor to a Second-Team All-Pro selection in 2016 until a congenital neck condition forced him to retire from playing the game.
Orr quickly transitioned to becoming a coach and was most recently serving as the Ravens Linebackers Coach the past two years, the same role Macdonald served in prior to replacing Don ‘Wink’ Martindale in 2022 after a one-year stint calling plays at the collegiate level at Michigan.
Harbaugh believes that the 31-year-old’s experience both playing inside linebacker and coaching the position, which is essentially the quarterback of the defense, makes him uniquely qualified and set up to thrive in his elevated role.
“Zach is super talented and super enthusiastic,” Harbaugh said. “He’s very smart. He has prepared for that job. He’s in the middle of the defense. I think when you’re a linebackers coach, that’s an advantage because you’re in the middle of the defense and you understand the whole defense inside and out.
“You have a big picture. It helps you with defensive play calling, for sure. A linebackers coach usually has an advantage as far as that goes. There’s no reason not to put Zach in that position in my mind right now, and I think he’ll do a great job, but I also think he’ll do a great job because of the support he’s going to get.”
Unlike his predecessor and mentor, Orr doesn’t have previous play-calling or designing experience at any level under his belt. Nevertheless, Harbaugh is confident that he will rise to meet that challenge and still have success while learning on the job thanks in large part to a strong support system and collaborative effort by the entire defensive staff.
“That’s something that we’re going to have to work through and Zach’s going to have to get on board with quick,” Harbaugh said. “I think he’s been studying that and how to do that all the way through.
“In talking to him, I have a comfort level that he’ll be good at it, but he has to go do it. He’s going to get support not just from the veteran coaches but also the young coaches that are going to help set up those gameplans and make sure that all the bases are covered that way.”
While the principles and identity of the Ravens’ defense over the years have remained the same for the most part, each coordinator that has come before Orr left their own fingerprint and evolved it to a degree. Under Martindale, the unit played more man coverage and blitzed at the highest rate in the league, regularly sending five or more defenders to rush the passer.
The beauty of Macdonald’s tenure was the use of simulated pressures that still generated consistent pass rush while not leaving them short-handed in coverage, which led to far fewer big plays given up once they got into a groove midway through the 2022 regular season even before the arrival of two-time All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith.
“I’m looking for evolution and growth just like we would if Mike was still here, and that’s why we have advancement from within,” Harbaugh said. “it will still be, in the world of what we do, a Ravens defense, schematically and even more importantly, how we like to play. Zach, [it’s] hard to beat Zach in terms of knowing that, because he’s born and bred a Raven. I’m looking forward to it.”
After assembling one of the best coaching staff in the league last offseason, especially on defense, the Ravens had three top assistants hired away. In addition to Macdonald leaving for the Seahawks, they had Defensive Backs Coach Dennard Wilson depart to become the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, and Associate Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach Anthony Weaver was hired as the defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins in the past week. They have supreme confidence and belief that Orr will not only succeed in his new role but could be destined for even more greatness down the road.
“What made Zach so good as a player was [that] he had a great instinct for the game,” General Manager Eric DeCosta said. “He was very, very quick to key and diagnose, and he played with a passion, and he was just relentless to the football. Those qualities make a great coach, so I have no doubt that Zach is going to be a great defensive coordinator and probably, if I had a crystal ball, a head coach someday.”