Mike Macdonald had finished up a program at the University of Georgia business school and had signed a contract to begin working for accounting firm KPMG. Then former Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg called, and everything changed.

By then, Macdonald had dipped his toes in the coaching waters, first at a Georgia high school and later as a graduate assistant at Georgia. Even though his future appeared to be in finance, the pull of the sideline was undeniable.

“I just fell in love with [coaching],” Macdonald said. “I toiled over it for a little bit, but I ended up being just like, ‘What are you doing? This is where your heart is at. If you’re 40 years old and you didn’t give it a shot, you’re not going to be able to live with yourself.'”

Macdonald answered Rosburg’s call, though not at first — “It was an Ohio number, and I thought it was a recruit, and I didn’t answer it like 10 times in a row.” Macdonald told KPMG no thanks, told Rosburg yes, and he accepted a coaching internship with the Ravens for the 2014 season.

That set in motion a whirlwind career that led Macdonald to the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Md., where he was introduced as the team’s new defensive coordinator in early February.

Macdonald replaces Don “Wink” Martindale, whom the team parted ways with in January after 10 seasons, including the past four as defensive coordinator.

The Ravens finished the 2021 season 8-9, just the second losing season in John Harbaugh’s 14-year tenure as head coach.

Macdonald, who spent seven of the past eight years with the Ravens before going to the University of Michigan for one year, called it “a dream come true to come back home.”

At 34, he is the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL.

“To me, age is just a number,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t care if it’s a low number or a high number. It’s a number. So it’s what you bring, what you contribute, how you are and how you do the job.”

After beginning as a defensive intern in 2014, when he shared a cramped office with fellow intern and current special teams coordinator Chris Horton, Macdonald was promoted to linebackers coach in 2018 when Martindale was named defensive coordinator.

Macdonald also interviewed for that job at age 30, indicating just how highly regarded he is by Harbaugh.

Macdonald worked as the Ravens’ linebackers coach from 2018-2020. He then left the Ravens to become the defensive coordinator for Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, at Michigan in 2021. He gained experience in play-calling and other personnel management duties required of a coordinator, and his Wolverines defense thrived.

Michigan finished No. 8 in the country in scoring defense, allowing 17.4 points a game, and edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson (14 sacks) blossomed into a Heisman Trophy finalist and potential No. 1 overall draft pick. Michigan won its first Big Ten title since 2004 and advanced to the College Football Playoff semifinal.

The experience gained in Ann Arbor last year burnished Macdonald’s already impressive resume, Harbaugh said.

“Sometimes it’s tough to leave a comfortable situation and go step out and take a chance,” Harbaugh said. “He was willing to do that, bet on himself, went out and had great success.”

That success, plus his roots in the Ravens organization, allowed Macdonald to emerge from a pool of candidates that included Ravens defensive line coach Anthony Weaver and secondary coach Chris Hewitt, as well as finalists from outside the organization.

Macdonald “grew up as a coach here,” Harbaugh said. “I know Mike understands the standards. … He’s an established part of the Ravens’ culture defensively. The history and success we’ve had, he contributed to it.”

Challenges Await

The stark truth, though, is that this past year’s defense bore little resemblance to past success, and now the onus falls to Macdonald to fix it.

The Ravens had been a top-10 overall defense in Martindale’s first three seasons as defensive coordinator — including No. 1 in 2018 — but slipped to No. 25 overall in 2021, their lowest ranking since 1997.

The Ravens ranked No. 1 overall against the run but dead last against the pass, and they allowed 4,742 passing yards, the most in franchise history. Opponents gained 5.98 yards per offensive snap, the highest total in the league.

The Ravens were victimized by miscommunication and coverage breakdowns in the secondary, a below-average pass rush and subpar tackling. They finished with 15 takeaways, the second fewest in team history.

To be sure, injuries played a major role. The Ravens played the entire season without Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters (knee), starting defensive lineman Derek Wolfe (hip) and starting linebacker L.J. Fort (knee). They lost safety DeShon Elliott (pectoral/biceps) and Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey (pectoral) to season-ending injuries during the season.

The Ravens figure to get several of those players back in 2022, but roster churn is inevitable, and they could lose the two biggest cogs of their run defense in defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell, both of whom are pending free agents.

“But the guys we have in place, they’re great players,” Macdonald said. “They’ve got a great track record. I’m excited to work with them.”

One such player is linebacker Patrick Queen, the former first-round pick who struggled early this past season but improved after moving from middle to weak-side linebacker.

Queen finished with a team-high 98 tackles and two sacks.

Macdonald said it was still too early to know whether Queen would return to the middle linebacker spot, but he said, “Patrick is going to be successful no matter where he’s at. He’s a great player. He’s got a great skill set, he’s very smart. He’s still really young. So he’s got a great career ahead of him.”

“Aggressiveness … Is Going To Carry Over”

Martindale’s defenses were characterized by aggressive blitzing, often creatively disguised, making up for the lack of elite edge rushers.

The Ravens ranked tied for 22nd in sacks this past season with 34, and the pass rush figures to rank high on the list of roster concerns.

Tyus Bowser, who led the Ravens with seven sacks this past year, tore an Achilles tendon in the season finale and his status for the start of the 2022 season remains uncertain. Odafe Oweh (five sacks) flashed at times as a rookie, but Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee are both pending free agents who might be at the end of their careers.

Macdonald didn’t get into particulars about how his defense might differ from Martindale’s, but he did say he won’t shy away from his predecessor’s aggressive schemes.

“The aggressiveness absolutely is going to carry over,” he said, noting that various disguises and pressure looks are all about “changing the stress points … and just trying to create doubt at all times. You want to be the one pushing the envelope, rather than the other way around. So that aggressiveness … that’s a principle of the Ravens organization.”

So, too, is the mantra of “Play Like A Raven,” which translates to physicality, consistency and swagger. Macdonald is determined to get his defense back to that.

“I’ve been part of this culture,” Macdonald said. “This culture has helped mold me. It’s one that I don’t take lightly. … We’re just really excited to get it going, just getting the pieces in place, starting to rock and roll and build what we envision to be another great Ravens defense.”

Photo Credit: U-M Photography

Issue 273: February/March 2022

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka