The Ravens hired Mike Macdonald as their defensive coordinator Thursday night, tapping the 34-year-old coach to return to Baltimore and fix one of the NFL’s most disappointing defenses.
Macdonald, who emerged as the favorite for the position days after coach John Harbaugh parted ways with Don “Wink” Martindale last week, becomes the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL and in franchise history. He’s also the Ravens’ first external hire for the position since Marvin Lewis took the job ahead of their inaugural 1996 season.
Before he was hired away to coordinate Michigan’s defense under Jim Harbaugh last year, Macdonald spent seven seasons on his brother John’s defensive staff in Baltimore. In his one season with the Big Ten Conference champion Wolverines, Macdonald helped oversee one of the country’s most impressive turnarounds.
“Mike is one of us — a Raven through and through,” John Harbaugh said in a release. “During his initial seven seasons with us, it was evident that his leadership, intelligence and passion would earn him the opportunity to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
“Mike has continuously proven himself, including when he led one of the country’s best defenses at Michigan last year. He is a proven play-caller who knows our system well. He also fully understands the standard of playing defense in Baltimore.”
Macdonald, hired by the Ravens as a 26-year-old intern in 2014, served as a defensive assistant for two years, the team’s defensive backs coach for one year and the team’s linebackers coach for three years.
After Dean Pees retired in January 2018, Macdonald interviewed for the vacant coordinator position. Instead, the Ravens hired Martindale, their linebackers coach, who in his first three years managed one of the NFL’s best defenses. From 2018 to 2020, the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in overall efficiency each year, according to Football Outsiders, and led the league in scoring average (18.2 points per game allowed) and total defense (307.8 yards per game).
But as Martindale’s defense struggled with injuries and inconsistency in 2021, Macdonald’s soared. After ranking No. 106 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Michigan finished No. 13 last season. The Wolverines also ranked No. 20 in the nation in total defense and tied for eighth in scoring defense.
Led by edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and David Ojabo, another projected first-round pick in April’s NFL draft, Michigan defeated rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and won its first Big Ten title since 2004.
Even before his success in Ann Arbor, Macdonald was seen as a possible heir apparent in Baltimore. Jim Harbaugh said last year that John had told him Macdonald would “probably” succeed Martindale as the team’s next defensive coordinator. When Martindale was dismissed with a year left on his contract, Macdonald got his chance.
Harbaugh needed less than a week to settle on his former assistant. Ravens defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, a former defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, a former Ravens defensive line coach, were among those who interviewed for the vacancy. Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach Joe Whitt Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell and New Orleans Saints defensive backs coach Kris Richard were also linked to the position.
Macdonald is scheduled to be introduced in Baltimore next week, after Harbaugh holds his long-delayed season-ending news conference Monday. When Macdonald was hired at Michigan last year, he envisioned instilling what he’d learned in Baltimore.
“You look at the Ravens’ defense and what Wink has been able to do and the rest of our staff the last few years, and you’re like, man, those guys are flying all over the place,” Macdonald said in August. “And that’s kind of what we’re trying to create here. But I think the secret sauce is that it’s really not that complicated.
“Again, it’s just different concepts layered together. We’re trying to create complexity to an offense, really try to make it a living nightmare. Not a fun place to be.”
Now the Ravens’ defense will be his to run. Philosophically, it might not be too different from Martindale’s. At Michigan, the Wolverines typically played with two or three down linemen and four linebackers, as the Ravens have. But with Michigan’s strong pass rush, Macdonald did not blitz as often as Martindale had. He also changed his pass defense plans from game to game, sometimes relying on one-high-safety shells in coverage and other times relying on two-high shells.
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In both Baltimore and Michigan, Macdonald earned praise for the aggressive mindset he instilled and the strategic tweaks he made. Inside linebacker L.J. Fort said before the 2020 season that Macdonald and Martindale “let you make plays, so I feel like that’s the best thing.” Hutchinson, who had just 4 ½ sacks over his first three seasons at Michigan before recording 14 last year, told the “Green Light with Chris Long” podcast that Macdonald was behind his move to a full-time edge-rushing role.
“That allowed me to stand up, and it just feels so right. It feels so good,” he said. “I was falling in love with the defense, falling in love with my role and the freedom that my coordinator gives me.”
The 2022 Ravens defense will be different from the 2020 unit Macdonald left behind. The Ravens finished No. 28 in overall defensive efficiency this season, according to Football Outsiders, and allowed a franchise record for passing yards. They struggled to create sacks and force turnovers. Tackling was a problem at times. Injuries were a problem most of the time.
Even if cornerbacks Marcus Peters (torn ACL) and Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral muscle) can recover their All-Pro form, there are questions at every level of the defense. Up front, with Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell headed for free agency or, potentially, retirement, the Ravens might have to rebuild their stout run defense.
At linebacker, the Ravens will need growth from Odafe Oweh and Patrick Queen, two first-round picks with star potential and steep learning curves. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser’s reported Achilles tendon injury could also leave the team without its top returning pass rusher for part of the season.
In the secondary, the Ravens will need to rebuild the depth that injuries crippled in 2021. Cornerbacks Tavon Young, Anthony Averett and Jimmy Smith are unlikely to return to Baltimore, and Brandon Stephens had a promising but inconsistent rookie year next to starting safety Chuck Clark.
After only a year away from Baltimore, Macdonald still knows many of the Ravens’ players. He knows a lot of the staff, too. Now he’ll have to figure out how they can meet the franchise’s vaunted standards for its defense.