The changing pendulum of the Baltimore Ravens defense

Ravens, Mike Macdonald (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)
Ravens, Mike Macdonald (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images) /

Ever since the inception of the franchise, aggressive defenses have been a hallmark of the Baltimore Ravens‘ organizational strategy.

An organization that has featured some of the best defenses in NFL history, the Ravens have always prided themselves on forcing the issue defensively by creating plays themselves rather than by simply trying to stop the offense from advancing, a strategy that continued through the tenure of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.

However, the Ravens are responding to a changing league and seem to be heading in a new direction defensively, flipping the script for opposing offenses trying to beat them.

Under Martindale, the defensive strategy was pretty simple: blitz the quarterback, follow up with more blitzes, and for the heck of it throw some more blitzes. This was part of a bigger strategy of Martindale’s to simply wreak havoc on the opposing offense.

It was not only that he blitzed a lot, it was that he disguised the blitzes as well as anybody, with all 11 players a threat to come at the quarterback or drop in coverage at any given time.

This aggressive strategy was designed to force the issue defensively, with the defense creating negative plays and forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes that would allow them to take the ball away.

For the first three years of Martindale’s tenure, this strategy worked as well as one could hope. The Ravens led the league in blitz-rate all three years, topping out with an astronomical number of 54.9% in 2019.

His defenses consistently ranked towards the top of the league in pressure rate, while also dominating in the run game by forcing tackles for losses and letting ballhawks like Marcus Peters pounce on mistakes forced on opposing quarterbacks by pressure.

This led to three consecutive top-three finishes in points allowed, while finishing 2018-2020 fourth, fifth, and ninth respectively in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metric.

The flip side of taking such big risks can be that if the plays aren’t executed quickly the offense has a greater opportunity to create big plays, but the Ravens were remarkable at avoiding big plays.

During those three seasons, the Ravens ranked seventh, ninth, and first in terms of fewest explosive passes given up. This was due in large part to the talent on the defense.

Over that time, Ravens defenders combined to make 10 Pro Bowl appearances, as well as first-team All-Pro appearances from cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey in 2019.

It is much easier to take risks when you have players up front who can get into opposing backfields quickly, and cornerbacks who won’t need as much safety help.

However, the flip side is that this style of defense makes it easy for things to crumble when the talent is not there. Martindale’s style of play creates a constant pendulum that divides big plays from the defense and explosive plays by the offense.

For the first three years of his career, the defense was able to keep that pendulum on their side, but as players started to go down one-by-one in 2021, it started to swing toward the offenses.

As the Ravens continued to lose defensive backs last year, it became clear that Martindale’s strategy would simply not work with an inferior group of players who could not do what they were being asked to do.

Martindale adjusted slightly, bringing the Ravens blitz rate down from first all the way to sixth. This was still far too aggressive given the players on the field, something which was reflected in the results.

The Ravens gave up the most explosive passes in the NFL last year while having the fourth-fewest takeaways in the league and finishing 28th in defensive DVOA.

The struggles of last year’s defense made it clear that Martindale was not going to be offered an extension by the team, and the two decided to part ways.

It was also becoming clear that elements of Martindale’s defense were becoming somewhat antiquated in the modern NFL.

The advancement of both the quarterback position and the schematic genius of the younger offensive minds have made some of the best offenses un-blitzable, meaning teams need to play more zone defense with two high safeties in an attempt to stop big plays.

The Ravens responded by moving in this direction in the offseason, both through their coaching and personnel decisions.

They brought in Michigan Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald to serve the same role while investing heavily in the safety position.

Macdonald came into a similarly blitz-heavy team in Ann Arbor and reduced their blitz rate by almost 13% in 2021 while heading a defense that finished eighth in division one in points per game and led the Wolverines to the college football playoffs.

Beyond bringing in Macdonald, Baltimore also invested in the safety position. They brought in Marcus Williams on a five-year $70 million deal in free agency, while drafting Kyle Hamilton in the first round.

This is an important tenet of these new defenses because safety versatility is vital when playing two-high. Rather than following the traditional notions of a free and strong safety, today’s safeties need to be able to fill many different roles interchangeably.

If part of the idea is collapsing around short passes and runs to keep the offense behind the sticks, the safeties are the ones who need to do the collapsing, while also needing to be able to help prevent big plays.

In fact, since 2019, a top-10 safety is the most valuable asset a defense can have according to PFF WAR. This has been reflected in the explosion of the safety market, with multiple giant extensions being handed down and making the Williams deal look like a bargain.

While this represents a change in defensive strategy, bringing Macdonald in is especially a big contrast for the Ravens.

Part of the idea behind two-high is an acknowledgment that NFL offenses are too good to be stopped when they are playing at their best.

The Bills can have the number one defense in football, which they did in 2021, but when Patrick Mahomes plays the way he did in the Divisional Round there is simply nothing one can do to stop them.

However, forcing the offense to methodically move the ball down the field creates a higher chance of variance. It forces them to simply execute more often, and be more precise.

Even if gaining five yards on first down is a good play, enough second and fives and third and shorts will hopefully eventually yield a drop or a misfire or a penalty that kills the drive.

Simply put, defenses are saying that if an elite offense wants to beat them by death of 1,000 cuts, then good for them. But they will not beat them on a big play, and by forcing them into longer drives there is a better chance that they will beat themselves.

And yet, it is not as if everything will be different in 2022. Macdonald will still blitz a decent amount, although not as much as Martindale, and one skill he certainly gained during his time as an assistant in Baltimore is the ability to disguise coverages the way Martindale did.

The Ravens are still dominant on the interior and any offense hoping to run the ball on early down will have to get past the likes of Calais Campbell, Michael Pierce, and Travis Jones. What’s more, Marcus Peters will always be a ballhawk, and Marlon Humphrey is not going to stop punching at the football.

But while the defense is not being radically changed in the way the offense was when Lamar Jackson came, a subtler shift is occurring in terms of the fundamental doctrine behind the Ravens’ approach to that side of the ball.

For 25 years, the Ravens had put the variance in their corner. Turnovers and explosive plays are inherently high-variance plays, but by continuously being aggressive the Ravens attempted to force the issue.

Now, they are trying to put the variance in the offense’s corner. The Ravens are the ones now simply trying to execute on a down-to-down basis, and by taking away the ability of the offense to create high-variance plays, the Ravens hope in turn to create a higher chance of random screwing up.

And even if it does not represent the macho mentality of running all-out blitzes on four straight plays like they did to clinch the division in 2018, the Ravens are still doing things their own way.

They are trying to take some of the underlying tenets of Martindale’s defense and update them to reflect the way offenses are defended in 2022.

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Instead of trying to force the issue themselves, the Ravens will increasingly be daring opposing offenses to beat them while maintaining the ability to consistently wreak havoc in opposing backfields.

Solving this defense may prove a tall task for opposing quarterbacks.