The 2022 Baltimore Ravens defense has been much maligned. And I mean MUCH maligned. As in morning TV show segments about how bad the unit was. Public declarations that they were shaming the legacy of the franchise.
According to many, this defense was tarnishing the legacies of all who fought at Fort McHenry while spitting on the grave of Edgar Allen Poe and disgracing every last person who has ever eaten a crab cake.
The scapegoat for many was new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.
Macdonald, who previously served as Michigan’s defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, was brought in to replace the blitz-happy Don “Wink” Martindale to try to adapt to the modern two-high zone schemes necessary to defend the top-flight offenses in today’s AFC.
And there were certainly struggles to start. Macdonald was beaten up, given a wedgie, and then stuffed in a locker by Mike McDaniel in Week 2 as the first-year Dolphins head coach ran laps around a Ravens defense plagued by poorly-timed blitzes and miscommunications in the secondary to key a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback.
A Patriots offense that had struggled to move the ball under new offensive coordinator Matt Patricia moved down the field with ease during much of Baltimore’s Week 3 victory.
And yet, over the past two weeks, Macdonald showed why he was brought into Baltimore and is telling everyone to calm down and give this defense a chance.
This Ravens defense is not as bad as everyone says
Before diving into the differences in this year’s defense, it is first important to acknowledge that this year’s defense has not been as bad as everyone has made it out to seem.
While the defense has not been great, it has been essentially average. They are currently 17th in points allowed and 22nd in EPA/Play, numbers which aren’t great but are also far from being the worst in the league.
What’s more, they have played a hard schedule of offenses. Most notably, they played against a Dolphins offense that has thrived with Mike McDaniel and a group of superstar receivers, while also going up against a Bills offense that is setting the world on fire.
In a five-game sample size, that schedule has an outsize effect, and Baltimore is 14th in Defensive DVOA and tenth in Defensive Passing DVOA, per-play efficiency metrics which take into account strength of schedule.
And while no one, including me, would be satisfied with these placements by the end of the year, there is reason for optimism that this defense should improve.
The Ravens are still feeling the sting of last year’s injuries, but have been slowly getting guys back.
Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, both of whom played 100% of snaps on Sunday, played just 62% and 79% of snaps respectively during the matchup against Miami, with three of Miami’s six touchdowns coming in the 13 snaps Humphrey was off the field.
Jalyn Armour-Davis, a rookie fourth-round cornerback who is simply not ready for consistent game action, played over 50% of snaps in Week 2 but has been a healthy inactive each of the past two weeks.
Just today, Tyus Bowser and rookie David Ojabo both returned to practice, a big step for two players who will hopefully boost the Ravens’ pass rush.
There is a difference between a result being acceptable and understandable. While the results of the first few weeks were in no way acceptable, it is understandable why they occurred, and they are starting to be corrected.
Any new coach deserves some time, and the defense has gotten better as more players have come back and Macdonald has gained more experience.
Mike Macdonald’s Schematic Effect
Over the previous two weeks, Macdonald started to prove himself as a schematic designer and a defensive play caller.
The fundamental impetus behind bringing in Macdonald was that Martindale’s blitz-heavy system is effective against lesser teams, but is simply outdated in trying to defend modern offenses with elite quarterbacks that shred those styles of defenses with ease.
The entire name of today’s game is preventing big plays, and Macdonald faced his first true test against an elite quarterback in Week 4 against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.
In fact, the Ravens were extremely successful in stopping Buffalo from creating explosives, as Josh Allen’s Next Gen Stats passing chart in that game indicates.
There is only so much you can do against a quarterback like Allen, and if he pulls a bunch of plays out of his butt like he did in the second half, there are just not many answers.
And if Allen’s passing chart against Pittsburgh in Week 5 is any indication, Macdonald actually did a pretty good job.
But while Buffalo may have been a bigger test, the biggest reason Macdonald was brought in may have been to defend Cincinnati.
Martindale most likely cemented his fate in Baltimore’s Week 16 loss to the Bengals in 2021 when, with none of his original defensive backs available, Martindale still blitzed and played man.
Now to be clear, not many coaches would have been able to stop Joe Burrow and co. with Baltimore’s secondary that Sunday. But Martindale’s scheme made things worse, leading to a passing chart for Burrow that looked like this:
Last year’s Bengals were fourth in the NFL in EPA/Play against man coverage and third against one-high safety, while they were 12th in the NFL against zone and 18th against two-high safeties.
Simply put, this meant that the Ravens needed to bring in a defensive coordinator whose scheme was conducive to stopping their most formidable division rival, and Macdonald proved himself and then some on Sunday.
I know it feels like I am throwing a lot of graphs at you, but it is imperative to look at Burrow’s passing chart on Sunday to understand the difference in what Macdonald’s defense brings.
Burrow had an average depth of target of only 3.4 yards and zero throws charted by PFF as “big time throws” against Baltimore, death knells for an offense that relies on explosive plays to succeed.
And yet the most important thing is not the result of Burrow being unable to complete long passes, it is that as the chart above indicates he did not even attempt a pass of 15 yards or longer.
Macdonald’s scheme changed the geography of what types of throws were available to Burrow in the first place.
He is normally a quarterback who holds on to the ball to give those deep routes time to develop, but on Sunday he averaged 2.52 seconds before throwing, the fifth-quickest mark in the NFL last week
This means that Burrow was giving up and not even attempting the very thing that allowed Cincinnati to succeed against Baltimore and all other defenses last year.
Simply put, much of the battle on Sunday was won before the snap because of the type of defense the Ravens were playing. And while much of that was helped by the incompetence of Bengals head coach Zac Taylor as a play-caller, he does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon (knock on wood).
And putting all the charts aside, holding the Bills to 23 points and the Bengals to 17 points is a very positive sign for a defense specifically designed to stop the top quarterbacks in the AFC.
The Ravens’ defense has been plagued by problems that were unacceptable, but they were fixable.
And while there are still questions about whether Baltimore will fix those problems to the tune of meeting expectations and becoming a top-flight defense, the past two weeks have shown that everyone should pump the brakes on their prognostications of doom.
Mike Macdonald may have been the right hire after all.