By Chris Schisler
The Baltimore Ravens have moved on from Don Martindale. It will go down in history as the Ravens mutually part ways with their defensive coordinator. This one comes as a surprise, so let’s unpack it.
Unpacking the Don Martindale news:
Martindale clearly had his worst season as the Ravens defensive coordinator. In each season prior to this, he had a top 10 defense. This year the defense statistically ranked in the bottom tier. The Ravens gave up a lot of big plays down the field, with blown coverage being a common trend.
The injuries of the Ravens clearly gave Martindale some excuses. Not only did he lose Marcus Peters for the whole season, but by the end of the year, he was relying on raw corners like Keyvon Seymour and Robert Jackson.
You can make the argument that Martindale’s defense relies too heavily on personnel. When he doesn’t have a Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey combo, the defense doesn’t work. He needs great cornerbacks to lean on so his defense works.
You can also point to Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon’s immediate success after leaving the Ravens. Don’t forget, Yannick Ngakoue had a comeback season with the Las Vegas Raiders. Did Martindale struggle to get the most out of his pass rushers? It’s a fair question.
Why it doesn’t feel right:
Here is the catch. Here is why this doesn’t feel right. Martindale held the Steelers to 16 points in the finale. Martindale held down the Los Angeles Rams to just 20 points. In the back half of the schedule, only the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals scored over 24 points on the Ravens. The defense was just as hampered by injuries as the offense was and kept the Ravens competitive in games the offense didn’t do much in.
All things considered, this wasn’t even that bad of a year for the Ravens’ defense. It could have been a lot worse. If the Ravens want to move in a different direction, this move may make some sense. In that case, it was more of a parting ways thing than a firing situation. If this is the sacrificial lamb of the Ravens missing the playoffs, the organization missed the mark. Why this happened matters more than anything else because it completely changes the context for everything.
This feels very much like a case of “They got the wrong guy.” If the point of this was to change things up after a tough season and to add some consequence to ending the year in a six-game slump, they got the wrong coordinator. If Greg Roman was told goodbye it wouldn’t have been surprising. It’s been near the front of our minds for months; whether or not you want Roman gone, you’ve thought about it. Martindale’s exit is a shocker.
Change is coming post Don Martindale:
This is a great chance for the Ravens to change directions and undergo a defensive youth movement. Moving on from Don Martindale allows the Ravens to start fresh defensively. The personnel could change as much as the philosophy if you think about it.
Brandon Williams, Justin Houston, and Calais Campbell are all unrestricted free agents. The makings of a youth movement are already there for the Ravens with Odafe Oweh, Justin Madubuike and Tyus Bowser positioned to be key players in 2022.
Calais Campbell may retire, which would honestly help the Ravens if they’re moving in the younger direction. Justin Houston is a player you could go either way with. It’s very much like it was the last offseason, the Ravens should want Houston, but at a price, they’re comfortable paying. Houston was solid for the Ravens but he only had 4.5 sacks and he’s 32 years old.
The Ravens’ run defense has always been dependent on Brandon Williams. Williams is a space-eater who doesn’t; rush the passer much. He’s always been valuable because he’s been elite at what he does well- stopping the run and anchoring the defensive line. If the Ravens think he’s losing a step or it may be time to cut him loose before it’s too late, this is their chance to do so. Like Houston, Williams is also 32 years old.
What the Ravens lacked defensively were difference makers. Oweh had moments. He’s shown enough to make the franchise think he might be the next Terrell Suggs for them. The Ravens always want to be good at stopping the run, but what if they invest more in pass rush. What if the Ravens’ goals are to find the counter punch on the other side to Oweh and a defensive line that starts getting after the quarterback.
This is the Ravens’ chance to redo how they do things. They could theoretically switch to a 4-3 defense and commit to Oweh as a defensive end. Tyus Bowser, Patrick Queen and, maybe Josh Bynes (back at a cost-effective price) could be your three linebackers. The Ravens could draft some defensive linemen who could get into the backfield and play fewer two-gap responsibilities. Justin Madubuike may fit into this kind of defense a bit better anyway.
Martindale should be held in high esteem:
Change is coming and thinking about that change is exciting. That doesn’t mean moving on from Martindale was the right decision. It just means that if the Ravens get the right hire in at defensive coordinator, this can be a positive when it’s all said and done. The Ravens need to get better at rushing the passer. Now a new coordinator will have to work towards that progress.
Martindale was loved by the players. I’ve always respected his authenticity. Martindale’s stock as a defensive coordinator should still be high after all of this. He was with the Ravens organization since the 2012 season and when he supplanted Dean Pees it took the defense into a much better direction.
With Pees the Ravens died slowly. Soft zone coverage, typically a cover 3, allowed good quarterbacks to come back and put the final nail in the Ravens’ coffin too many times. Martindale went for it. Martindale would take chances in the situations Pees would sit back and fold his arms. I’ll always admire him for that.
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The Ravens defense did crumble and gave up late leads in the Ravens six-game losing streak. Ben Roethlisberger sent the Pittsburgh Steelers to the playoffs with an overtime drive that couldn’t have sat well with anybody in the organization. Moving on doesn’t feel right, but change is not unwarranted. It’s a sad day, Martindale was a huge part of this franchise for a long time. Change is hard, but if the Ravens do this right, it’s an opportunity to get back to dominant defense.