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As Mike Macdonald takes reins of Ravens defense, here are six pressing questions he faces – Twin Cities



The Ravens will hand their defense to the youngest coordinator in the NFL — a 34-year-old football obsessive who impressed John Harbaugh with his intellect and ambition from the moment he walked into the team’s facility as an intern eight years ago.

Mike Macdonald proved he could elevate a college defense in his lone season as a coordinator at Michigan, but he will face a complicated task with his return to Baltimore. The Ravens did not live up to their proud defensive tradition in 2021, finishing 25th overall and last against the pass. With several key veterans considering retirement or entering free agency, their personnel will change significantly. They will need returning stars such as Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Tyus Bowser to bounce all the way back from injury. Macdonald will try to fill the shoes of Don “Wink” Martindale, a popular, innovative coach who often worked wonders in his first three years as defensive coordinator.

With all these challenges in mind, here’s a look at the most pressing questions Macdonald will face.

Can he find the right level of tactical aggression?

Martindale faced criticism for his devotion to blitzing, which was not entirely fair. He never had an elite pass rusher, so he had to use players from all over the defense to generate pressure. We seem to forget now, but it worked: over his first three seasons, the Ravens ranked fourth, fifth and ninth in defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Martindale dialed back the blitzes in 2021 when he no longer had a top secondary offering security on the back end. He was not inflexible.

Macdonald worked beside Martindale and then for him, so it will be fascinating to see how much of his former boss’ style he carries over. The Ravens immediately went from middle of the pack to top of the league in blitz rate when Martindale took over for Dean Pees. How will those numbers look with a new coach at the helm?

It’s difficult to guess too much about Macdonald based on one college season, but he emphasized versatility and adaptability at Michigan. He moved away from the approach of his predecessor, Don Brown, who was known as “Dr. Blitz.”

“We’re going to do everything, baby,” Macdonald told reporters heading into the Wolverines’ biggest game of the season against Ohio State.

Can the Ravens increase their pass-rush production without blitzing so much?

The playoffs were packed with teams that consistently menaced opposing quarterbacks without going blitz-crazy. The Ravens achieved the unfortunate inverse; they ranked sixth in blitz percentage and 24th in pressure percentage, according to Pro Football Reference.

It helps enormously to have a blue-chip pass rusher such as Nick Bosa or Aaron Donald or T.J. Watt. You could argue the Ravens have not had such a player since 2014, when Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combined for 29 sacks. Unless they make an unforeseen splash on the offseason market, Macdonald will not have one to start his tenure.

Martindale compensated by blitzing more than any other coordinator in the league over his first three seasons from 2018 through 2020. His approach paid off with three top-10 passing defenses. It’s hard to know if that streak would have continued had Martindale worked with a healthy secondary in 2021.

If Macdonald is more conservative, will the Ravens be able to generate pressure with their existing talent up front? One of his notable achievements at Michigan was unlocking the edge-rushing talents of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who combined for 25 sacks after coming in with just 3 ½ from their previous seasons. Both are expected to be first-round picks in April, with Hutchinson a candidate to go first overall. Could Macdonald find a similar spark with Odafe Oweh, who showed tremendous potential in his rookie season? Could Justin Madubuike’s quickness make him the interior pass rusher the Ravens have lacked for years?

How will they freshen up the front without sacrificing their sound run defense?

Amid their struggles in other areas, the Ravens still finished second in run defense, an impressive achievement given the injuries that scrambled their veteran defensive line. Macdonald will almost certainly work with a different group in 2022. The team’s best interior lineman, Calais Campbell, is contemplating retirement and would be a free agent if he decides to play on. Longtime nose tackle Brandon Williams is also headed for free agency, coming off the worst season of his nine-year career. Derek Wolfe is under contract for now, but his future is up in the air after he did not play at all in 2021.

They’re staring at further changes on the edge, where veteran Justin Houston is headed for free agency, Pernell McPhee is considering retirement and Bowser is recovering from a reported injury to his Achilles tendon.

The Ravens have a pair of young linemen in Madubuike and Broderick Washington, both of whom played well at times in their second seasons, but they will have plenty of work to do in the draft and free agency. Will Macdonald influence the types of players they pursue, perhaps with an eye on invigorating an interior pass rush that has produced little in recent seasons? Will they try to coax Campbell into playing another season or pursue modest, one-year deals with Williams and Houston?

What role will Patrick Queen play?

The Ravens drafted Queen to be their next great middle linebacker but pulled him from the role early in his second season after he seemed overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the position. Queen played better after he moved to the weak side, ultimately leading the team in tackles and tackles for loss, but his struggles in coverage persisted, and it’s an open question how he might perform without a calming, organizing presence such as Josh Bynes beside him.

The Ravens could go another year with the same approach. Bynes, 32, has said he would like to come back and that he still has gas in his tank. He would be an affordable insurance policy. They could also consider a reunion with L.J. Fort, who was supposed to be their dependable veteran at inside linebacker until he tore his ACL in August.

Macdonald coached all of these players, so it’s not as if this scenario is unfamiliar to him. His assessment of Queen and his approach to the position group that used to be his specialty could tell us plenty about where he’s headed as a coordinator.

How can the secondary recapture its big-play flair?

The Ravens gave up too many explosive plays in 2021. They ranked fourth in air yards allowed and yards after the catch allowed, a deadly combination. And they did not compensate by forcing turnovers. Their minus-11 differential ranked fifth worst in the league, putting them in company with hopeless teams such as the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears.

How much can a coordinator do to change this? After all, the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in turnover differential in 2020 and 2019 under Martindale. Perhaps the answer is as simple as praying that Peters, one of the NFL’s great ballhawks, does not blow out his knee going into next season.

The Ravens will almost certainly draft one or more cornerbacks but can they find a natural center fielder to pair with jack-of-all-trades Chuck Clark at safety? Could Geno Stone grow into that role? How will Macdonald use Brandon Stephens, who showed promise in multiple spots as a rookie?

Better health alone will probably translate to better performance, but this is also the area where the Ravens need to make the biggest leap for Macdonald to call his first season a success.

How much will Macdonald’s staff turn over in the next few weeks?

Most of Macdonald’s coaching connections come from his time in Baltimore, so it’s not as if he’s stepping onto unfamiliar ground. But he could face immediate turbulence as he locks down his staff over the next few weeks.

Chris Hewitt, who coordinated the pass defense under Martindale, and Anthony Weaver, who coordinated the run defense, were both candidates for the top job. Will they want to work for a younger coach who beat them out? Weaver did not work with Macdonald in Baltimore, has experience as a coordinator and could be an attractive candidate for several teams as the league’s coaching landscape shakes out.

Will a veteran coach step naturally into helping Macdonald adjust to his new position? Inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan, a former defensive coordinator for four teams with 21 years of NFL experience, could be a candidate for that role, but the Ravens could also look outside for a seasoned hand.



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