The Ravens hired Mike McDonald as defensive coordinator Thursday night, calling the 34-year-old coach back to Baltimore and fixing one of the NFL’s most frustrating defenses.
McDonald, who became 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 is also the Ravens’ first outside employee to the position since Marvin Lewis took over the position ahead of their inaugural 1996 season.
Before being hired last year to coordinate the defense of Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, McDonald spent seven seasons at his brother John’s defensive headquarters in Baltimore. In his only season with the Big Ten conference champion Wolverines, McDonald helped oversee one of the most impressive turnarounds in the country.
“Mike is one of us – a Raven to the core,” John Harbaugh said in a press release. “During his first seven seasons with us, it was obvious that his leadership, intelligence and passion would earn him the opportunity to become a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
“Mike has consistently proven himself, including when he led one of the best defenses in the nation in Michigan last year. He is a proven play caller who knows our system well. He also fully understands the standard of defensive play in Baltimore.”
Hired by the Ravens as a 26-year-old trainee in 2014, McDonald worked as a defensive assistant for two years, as the team’s defensive coach for one year, and as the team’s linebacker coach for three years.
After Dean Peace retired in January 2018, McDonald was interviewed for the vacant coordinator position. Instead, the Ravens hired Martindale, their linebackers coach, who managed one of the best defenses in the NFL for his first three years. From 2018 to 2020, the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in overall performance each year and led the league in scoring average (18.2 ppg) and total defense (307.8 yards per game), according to Football Outsiders.
But as Martindale’s defense struggled with injuries and inconsistency in 2021, Macdonald’s has taken off. Ranked 106th nationally in defensive performance by the ESPN Football Power Index, Michigan finished 13th last season. The Wolverines also ranked 20th in the nation in overall defense and finished eighth in defensive scoring.
Led by Aidan Hutchinson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and David Ojabo, another predicted first-round pick in the April NFL Draft, Michigan defeated rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011 to win their first Big Ten title since 2004.
Even before his success in Ann Arbor, MacDonald was considered a possible heir in Baltimore. Jim Harbaugh said last year that John told him McDonald would “probably” succeed Martindale as the team’s next defensive coordinator. When Martindale was fired a year before the end of his contract, McDonald got his chance.
It took Harbaugh less than a week to decide on his former assistant. Ravens defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, former Houston Texans defensive coordinator, and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, former Ravens defensive line coach, were among those interviewed for the job. Dallas Cowboys defensive end coach Joe Witt Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, and New Orleans Saints defensive end coach Chris Richard have also been associated with the position.
McDonald is due to be unveiled in Baltimore next week after Harbaugh holds his long-delayed end-of-season press conference on Monday. When McDonald was hired in Michigan last year, he assumed he could instill what he learned in Baltimore.
“You look at the Ravens defense and what Wink and the rest of our staff have been able to do over the past few years and you think, man, these guys are flying all over the place,” McDonald said in August. “And that’s what we’re trying to create here. But I think the secret sauce is that it’s actually not that hard.
“Again, these are just different concepts layered on top of each other. We’re trying to make the attack harder, really trying to turn it into a living nightmare. Not the most fun place.”
Now the protection of the Ravens will be on his conscience. Philosophically, this may not be too different from Martindale. In Michigan, the Wolverines typically played with two or three linemen and four linebackers, as did the Ravens. But because of Michigan’s strong passing, McDonald didn’t shine as often as Martindale. He also changed his pass defense plans from game to game, sometimes relying on one high safety in cover and other times relying on two high safety implements.
In both Baltimore and Michigan, MacDonald earned praise for the aggressive mindset he instilled and the strategic changes he made. Inside linebacker LJ Fort said ahead of the 2020 season that McDonald and Martindale “let you play, so I feel like that’s the best.” Hutchinson, who had just 4 ½ sacks in his first three seasons at Michigan before recording 14 last year, told the Green Light with Chris Long podcast that McDonald was behind his move to a regular role.
“It allowed me to stand up and it feels so right. It’s so good,” he said. “I fell in love with defense, fell in love with my role and the freedom that my coordinator gives me.”
The 2022 Ravens defense will be different from the one McDonald left in 2020. The Ravens were ranked 28th in overall defensive effectiveness this season and set a franchise record for passing yards, according to Football Outsiders. They struggled to create bags and force turnovers. Combat was sometimes a problem. Injuries were a problem most of the time.
Even if cornerbacks Marcus Peters (anterior cruciate ligament tear) and Marlon Humphrey (pectoral tear) can regain their All-Pro form, there are questions at every level of defense. Ahead, as Brandon Williams and Kale Campbell go into free agency or possibly retirement, the Ravens may need to rebuild their solid defense.
As a linebacker, the Ravens will need the stature from Odafe Ove and Patrick Quinn, two first-round picks with stellar potential and steep learning curves. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser’s Achilles tendon injury has also been reported to result in the team not having their top pass returner for part of the season.
In the minor matches, the Ravens will need to regain the depth that injuries eroded in 2021. Cornerbacks Tavon Young, Anthony Averett and Jimmy Smith are unlikely to return to Baltimore, and Brandon Stevens had a promising but volatile rookie year alongside starting quarterback Chuck Clark. .
After only a year away from Baltimore, McDonald still knows many Ravens players. He also knows many of the employees. Now he’ll have to figure out how they can live up to the franchise’s vaunted standards to protect it.