If star Lions defensive end Aiden Hutchinson gives the Ravens troubles this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald is partially to blame.
Macdonald's coaching helped Hutchinson break out in his final season at the University of Michigan and become the No. 2-overall pick of the Lions last year. Hutchinson credited Macdonald with "giving me a lot of freedom in the defense and letting me loose."
In his second season as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, Macdonald is unleashing Baltimore's pass rush, and his current players are saying some of the same things Hutchinson did.
There were a lot of concerns about the Ravens' pass rush heading into the season, and despite injuries to two of the team's top edge rushers, Baltimore is tied with Buffalo atop the NFL with 24 sacks through the first six weeks.
The difference between the Ravens and Bills is the Ravens are getting sacks from more sources. Baltimore has 11 players with at least one sack. The next closest team has eight players.
"He puts everybody in position to make plays," said veteran Jadeveon Clowney, who is having a resurgent season. "And with the stuff he draws, I'll be like, 'Mike, keep dialing it up! Keep dialing it up!'"
Clowney has been deployed in a variety of different ways – on both sides of the offensive line, sometimes from the inside, sometimes way out wide. The Ravens have sometimes deployed defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks, as an edge rusher.
"Mike is really really good at what he does," Madubuike said. "We were talking about this the other day. He's a wizard when it comes to defensive schemes and putting us in position to be successful. He's got Mike [Pierce] cutting loose, me cutting loose, Odafe [Oweh] cutting loose, everybody cutting loose."
Macdonald uses a variety of stunts and pick plays to create open rush lanes, and it's not just for the outside linebackers. Pierce got a quarterback hit, and a questionable roughing the passer penalty, in London when outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy rammed into two blockers to clear the way for the big man.
"At nose guard, it's a dirty job," Pierce said. "Normally, nose guards don't get much action. To have those calls in there, it lets you know he's thinking about you. That's love. That's big-time."
The strength of the Ravens defense is up the middle, centered around inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. Macdonald has deployed them often as blitzers and constantly as threats, often with both lining up over both shoulders of the center in the A gaps.
That threat looms over offenses – are they coming? Are they not? Are they setting up rush lanes for teammates? Queen got one of his 3.5 sacks when setting a pick for Madubuike against the Titans. Other times, it's Madubuike clearing the way for Queen, who continues to show how dynamic he is as a blitzer.
"They have to play us honest now," Queen said. "You can't just be like, 'We'll double this guy, or we'll slide to this guy.' As long as we all just keep doing what we're doing, everybody will get what they want. Whatever goal they want to reach, however many sacks, whatever they want to reach, we'll get that."
Smith called Macdonald's system, "pretty sweet and clever."
"I'm a huge fan of Mike's system and the way he does things," Smith said. "You're guaranteed to get your one shot a game – are you going to take advantage of it? It's basically like that, and giving you some same pictures, giving you some different pictures with some same things [and] some different things. So, it's pretty unique within itself, and I'm just a huge fan of it."
Macdonald has also been calling blitzes at a higher rate. Last season, the Ravens blitzed 21.3% of the time. Only 11 teams blitzed less. This season, the Ravens are blitzing at 28.3% of the time. Only 12 teams are currently blitzing at a higher rate.
Macdonald gives credit to the players. After all, it's their execution that makes the plays happen. It's also a testament to their versatility that so many different players in the front seven can do so many different things. That allows Macdonald mix and match to maximize strengths and keep opponents on their toes.
"As you're building a system and a game plan, you're trying to have the ability to bring it from any side at any given point in time," Macdonald said. "It's like an offense saying, 'You've got to defend the width of the entire field.' Well defensively, you have to be able to account for everyone in the blitz game and pressure game. That's the idea."