John Harbaugh hoped for something different when he hired Mike Macdonald to replace Don ‘Wink’ Martindale as defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. Martindale’s scheme had become predictable thanks to an over-reliance on man coverage and designer blitzing.
Macdonald, by contrast, was expected to bring more variety after calling a hybrid system at Michigan that helped turn edge-rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo into stars. Things haven’t gone exactly to plan, with Macdonald’s Ravens defense ranked 12th in points and 15th in yards allowed.
There are question marks about some personnel, but there’s also a danger the Ravens are still predictable defensively. That’s the worry after Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson admitted he knew “specifically” how the Ravens’ defense would play in a key area of the field during Week 12’s 28-27 win.
Jaguars Knew What Was Coming From Disappointing Unit
The Jags first gained a foothold in a game they eventually won by a point when JaMycal Hasty caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence in the second quarter. Pederson had designed a way for an unheralded running back to beat two-time All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters on the outside.
It was a play “the Jaguars had repped specifically for the Ravens in practice,” according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. Pederson admitted he “knew specifically how Baltimore was going to align to that formation and that type of play.”
As to what Pederson knew, SB Nation’s JP Acosta referenced how often the Jags went after Peters whenever the Ravens played two-deep coverage:
There were two safeties deep when Hasty beat Peters. A two-deep shell is supposed to protect against the big play, but Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Sun explained why miscommunication and poor technique cost the Ravens: “Looks like Marcus Peters got greedy there. He was motioning to the defense before that TD and bit on the lower route.”
The Jaguars used route combinations to force the Ravens to switch from a Quarters defense (4-deep) to a Cover 2, according to NBC Sports’ Chris Simms:
In a Cover 2 defense, the corners are supposed to jam the receivers and play any outside routes, either into the flats or along the sidelines. They only release receivers who break inside and can be turned loose to the deep safeties.
Pederson knew the Ravens would adjust their quarters look to a two-deep shell late, leaving 29-year-old Peters vulnerable to speed on the outside. Guessing wrong against Hasty was just one example of Peters’ major struggles against Jacksonville, per NFL on CBS:
His torrid performance highlighted some of the shortcomings the Ravens have with personnel this season, but schematic confusion might be a bigger issue.
New-Look Ravens Defense Failing to Make the Grade
The Ravens invested heavily to fortify a defense that allowed the most passing yards in the NFL in 2021. They used a first-round pick, the 14th-overall selection, to draft safety Kyle Hamilton and pair him with free-agent recruit Marcus Williams.
A second-round pick yielded Ojabo, even after he tore his Achilles at Michigan’s pro day back in March. Veterans Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul have been asked to carry the pass-rush load while Ojabo and ’21 first-rounder Odafe Oweh get up to speed.
Age is a problem for the Ravens along the front seven, where Houston and Pierre-Paul are both 33. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Calais Campbell is 36. This group is struggling to protect leads even after the Ravens traded two 2023 draft picks to the Chicago Bears for inside linebacker Roquan Smith.
Macdonald’s defense squandered nine and seven-point leads in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars. The unit also let leads slip in the final period against the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants, all defeats for the Ravens.
It’s possible players like Humphrey aren’t responding to Macdonald’s play calling. The Ravens are playing more zone and less man coverage, spending 69.2 percent of the time in the former, 14th in the league, and a 19th-ranked 23.9 percent in man, per Jonathon Macri of Pro Football Focus.
Most of those zones are soft, based on how far Ravens’ cornerbacks are lining up off the ball. Receivers are running an average of 9.8 yards per target against Peters, according to Pro Football Reference, while Humphrey is allowing 6.2 yards and Brandon Stephens gives up a cushion of 7.3.
It looks like the Ravens have over-corrected from the man-heavy schemes of Martindale to a more passive approach players are struggling to execute and opponents find easy to decipher.