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Ravens film study: What to expect from Mike Macdonald’s defense

When Greg Roman was promoted to Ravens offensive coordinator in January 2019, he promised a near-total overhaul of the Lamar Jackson-led attack. “From the ground up,” Roman explained at his introductory news conference. Grand change was indeed underway.

On Monday, after another coordinator change, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about the defense’s new leadership. This time, he indicated, there were no such plans for a teardown. New coordinator Mike Macdonald’s structure, Harbaugh said, wouldn’t be “dramatically different” from the one overseen by Don “Wink” Martindale for the previous four seasons.

“You try to build on where you’ve been before,” Harbaugh said at the Ravens’ season-ending news conference. “That’s the thing that I think we’ve done here. That’s the great thing about continuity and the great thing about success. There is an amazing tradition of defense here, and it’s built on the players that have been here. It’s built on the schemes that have been used. It’s built on the mindset. It’s built on practice. It’s built on everything.”

Macdonald is the Ravens’ first external hire at the position since Marvin Lewis took over before the team’s inaugural 1996 season, but he’s well acquainted with the franchise’s expectations. Macdonald coached on the Ravens’ defensive staff from 2015 to 2020, first as an assistant, then as defensive backs coach, then as linebackers coach.

After overseeing a defensive turnaround at Michigan in 2021, Macdonald was lured back to Baltimore last month. He’ll take over a defense coming off a disappointing season and approaching a potentially depleting offseason. As Macdonald approaches his first year as an NFL defensive coordinator, there’s only so much evidence for how he might shape the Ravens’ defense. But his time in Ann Arbor showed how he might approach the job.

Pass-rush power

Last year, Macdonald set out to fix a Michigan pass rush that had been far more aggressive than productive. Over a shortened six-game 2020 season, then-coordinator Don Brown’s defense blitzed on 42.5% of drop-backs, according to Sports Info Solutions, but finished with just nine sacks. Defensive end Kwity Paye, the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft, had two sacks and five quarterback hits in five games. Only one other Wolverine finished with more than one sack.

By Michigan’s season opener this fall, Macdonald had found an upgrade for Paye on one side and a running mate on the other. In a breakout 2021, defensive end Aidan Huthinson and outside linebacker David Ojabo became linchpins of a pass rush that didn’t need to sacrifice numbers in coverage for pressure up front.

Hutchinson, a Heisman Trophy finalist and projected top-five pick in April’s NFL draft, had begun his career at Michigan splitting time between the interior and the edge. Last season, lining up almost exclusively outside the opposing tackle, he dominated against the run and pass. Hutchinson finished with 14 sacks in 14 games and an elite 25.4% pass-rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus.

Ojabo, a projected first-round pick who didn’t start playing football until 2017, racked up 11 sacks and five forced fumbles in his first year as a starter. He also had 37 pressures over his final 10 games.

Their production meant Macdonald could do more with less. The Wolverines finished with 34 sacks — almost 2 ½ per game — even as their blitz rate fell to 30.1%, according to SIS.

Sometimes blitzes seemed unnecessary. Of the 14 sacks Michigan recorded in important late-season wins against Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa, 12 came on four-man rushes, according to a review of the game film. The other two came on five-man pressure packages. On one highlight-reel sack against Iowa, Hutchinson shed the right tackle and then the running back as if they were tackling dummies before throwing quarterback Spencer Petras down for a 10-yard loss.

The Ravens didn’t have that kind of personnel advantage this season. Not a lot of teams do. According to Pro Football Reference, Martindale’s defense had a 31% blitz rate in 2021 (sixth highest in the NFL) but finished with just 34 sacks in 17 games (11th fewest) and a 23% pressure rate (ninth lowest). In Baltimore, Macdonald’s challenge will be supercharging a pass rush that has young talent but not yet the kind of playmakers who warp game plans.

Lasting legacy

Macdonald didn’t need a lot of creativity to wreak havoc up front. Oftentimes, he asked Hutchinson and Ojabo to win their one-on-one matchups without any pass-rush games. Sometimes he set up Hutchinson as the edge rusher on an unbalanced line, with two other down linemen aligned to his side and Ojabo flanked out on an island on the other side.

But if there were any clue that Macdonald had studied under Martindale in Baltimore, it was Michigan’s package of exotic pressures. Most notable in those late-season wins was Macdonald’s variety of “creepers” and simulated pressures, four-man pass rushes that call on a second- or third-level defender to replace a first-level defender dropping from the defensive line.

Macdonald, like Martindale, did not seem to discriminate in whom he used to execute them. On one play early in the Big Ten Conference championship game against Iowa, he had Ojabo bluff a pressure over the left tackle, then drop into a shallow zone, while defensive back Daxton Hill blitzed from the opposite slot. No one picked up Hill, whose hit on Petras forced an overthrow.

Later in the game, inside linebacker Michael Barrett was one of five Michigan defenders who lined up over the Hawkeyes’ line, threatening pressure on third down. Instead, he dropped back at the snap, disrupting Iowa’s crossing patterns and giving Michigan’s now unbalanced four-man pass rush favorable one-on-one matchups. Hutchinson’s bull rush got to Petras in time to bump him as he wound up, forcing an incompletion.

On the final defensive play of a narrow win against Penn State, Macdonald even showed a Martindale-esque “Cover 0″ look before the snap — man-to-man coverage against every receiver, with no deep safeties. Macdonald sent only five pass rushers after Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford, but the two defenders he dropped into shallow zone coverages were 262-pound defensive end Taylor Upshaw and 278-pound defensive end Mike Morris. The play call cleared a free lane for defensive back R.J. Moten, who got to Clifford and forced an overthrow on fourth-and-2.

Every exotic pressure had its risks, of course. Against Ohio State, Ojabo had to replace a blitzing inside linebacker in zone coverage on one creeper look. That left him exposed against Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who won easily in the slot before grabbing a 23-yard catch-and-run. Other times, there were miscommunications in coverage as linemen lumbered into unfamiliar territory.

But even on the rare occasions when Macdonald asked Hutchinson to not rush the passer, things tended to work out for Michigan.

Blueprints for success

As Michigan’s defensive coordinator, Macdonald didn’t replicate the defense he coached in Baltimore. As the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Macdonald won’t replicate the defense he led in Ann Arbor. But his one season with the Wolverines did leave a possible blueprint for some young Ravens defenders.

Up front, outside linebacker Odafe Oweh will enter his second season with the burden of even greater expectations. Not only is he a first-round pick coming off a season in which he led all rookie edge rushers in quarterback pressures, according to PFF, but he’s also uniting with a coordinator who helped turn two athletic but unproven edge rushers into almost overnight sensations.

At Penn State, Oweh didn’t have the pass-rush production of Hutchinson or Ojabo. But he was one of the country’s highest-rated edge rushers in 2020 and emerged as an athletic marvel in predraft testing. With his 82-inch wingspan and 6-foot-5 frame, Oweh has the potential to set the edge as violently in the NFL as Hutchinson did in the Big Ten, funneling every run his way back inside. And with his speed, work ethic and room for growth as a power rusher, his pass-rush production next season could elevate as dramatically as Ojabo’s did in 2021.

Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, another first-round pick, was coached by Macdonald in 2019. That rookie season was also the more productive of Queen’s two years in Baltimore. He finished with 102 tackles, three sacks, two passes defended, two forced fumbles and an interception in 16 games. But his first-season struggles in pass defense carried over into 2021, when Queen allowed 451 yards and a 115.6 passer rating when targeted in coverage, according to PFR.

Inside linebacker Josh Ross, Michigan’s leading tackler (106 stops, nine for loss), also had his rough patches last year, allowing a 110.4 rating in coverage. But in his second season as a full-time starter, the undersized Ross (6 feet 2, 224 pounds) proved himself as an on-field leader, quick study and solid run defender. He rarely left the field for the Wolverines.

In the secondary, Macdonald has maybe his most obvious analog. At Michigan, Hill, the younger brother of Ravens running back Justice Hill, lined up everywhere over his three college seasons. While he played mostly in the slot last season (580 snaps, according to PFF), he also got 132 snaps as a box defender, 80 as a deep-lying defensive back and 20 at the line of scrimmage. A potential first-round pick who projects as a versatile, speedy safety, Hill finished second on the Wolverines in tackles (69), first in pass breakups (nine) and tied for first in interceptions (two).

In Baltimore, Macdonald could find a similar role for safety Brandon Stephens, who emerged as one of the Ravens’ top defenders over the final month of his rookie season. Stephens, a gifted athlete himself, played mostly as a deep safety last season. But Martindale moved him around like a chess piece, from box safety (90 snaps in pass defense, according to SIS) to slot cornerback (75) to outside cornerback (11). Under Macdonald, Stephens could prove too good to keep tethered to any one position.