The Ravens could lose some key players on defense this offseason. However, their defensive coordinator remains in place, a development that should ease the impact of whatever personnel changes are made.
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale was not interviewed for one of the league’s eight offseason head coaching vacancies, despite directing the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense. The recent hiring trend for NFL head coaches has been heavily tilted toward offense. As a veteran defensive coach, Martindale didn’t fit the preferred profile.
Of the eight jobs, six will be filled by coaches with offensive backgrounds. The only teams that went defense are the Denver Broncos with former Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio and reportedly the Miami Dolphins with New England Patriots Linebackers Coach Brian Flores.
With the only other job still technically open, the Cincinnati Bengals will reportedly hire another offensive coach, Los Angeles Rams Quarterbacks Coach Zac Taylor.
Though Taylor has never been a head coach, he checks another popular box – a connection to Rams Head Coach Sean McVay. New Green Bay Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur was the offensive coordinator on McVay’s staff in 2017. New Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury is friends with McVay – a fact the Cardinals even mentioned in their press release to announce they had hired Kingsbury.
Martindale has never worked with McVay. It’s possible he doesn’t have McVay’s phone number. But Martindale knows how to dial up defenses. In Martindale’s first year as coordinator after spending six seasons as the team’s linebackers coach, Baltimore allowed the fewest yards in the league, winning the AFC North in the process.
Among the 12 teams that allowed the fewest points this season, nine of them made the playoffs. Defense still matters. For the Ravens to play it well again in 2019, it will help to have their coordinator back in the role he loves, working for Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh.
“If you’re worth you’re salt as an assistant, I think everybody wants to be a head coach,” Martindale said on Jan. 3. “If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I told John this the other day when we were sitting there talking. I’m 55 years old. However long you want to go, I’d love to just be the D coordinator here and do it with you.”
The Ravens returned all 11 starters on defense in 2018, but the Ravens know that’s unlikely to happen again. Four starters are free agents – Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, all-time franchise sacks leader Terrell Suggs, 2018 sacks leader Za’Darius Smith, and defensive end Brent Urban. In addition, there are difficult salary cap decisions about Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr+.
The Ravens leaned on Suggs, Mosley and Weddle for defensive leadership, not just on games days but at practices and meetings. However, the high standard that the coaching staff expects from a Baltimore defense will remain in place, even if some key pieces depart.
Despite their defensive success, there are areas in which the Ravens can improve. Only five teams had fewer takeaways than Baltimore (17), and there were only two playoff teams that had a negative takeaway-giveaway ratio – the Ravens (-3) and Philadelphia Eagles (-6).
Even if they re-sign Mosley, the Ravens may look to upgrade their overall speed on defense through the draft and free agency. Considering the strength of their pass rush and quality of their corners, the Ravens probably should have forced more turnovers than they did.
However, it was encouraging that as the season progressed, Baltimore’s defense made more opportunistic plays. Inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor had two key forced fumbles, both in Week 16 against the Los Angeles Chargers and in the playoff loss to the Chargers. Those are the kind of plays the Ravens will seek more of in 2019.
“There are plenty of things that we can do to improve,” Harbaugh said following the playoff loss. “We’ll look at this as our beginning and go from here.
“I thought our defense played outstanding. Playoff football is basically complementary football – you win as a team. You have to put all three phases together to win it. We didn’t really do that today like we needed to. All three phases fought, all three phases competed. Our defense played the best of all three phases. I thought they played the way they have all year.”
The NFL’s four highest-scoring teams will compete for a Super Bowl berth this weekend – the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, and Los Angeles Rams. Martindale will undoubtedly be watching, looking for clues on how to stop them. Despite the league’s ever-increasing emphasis on offense, Martindale still believes in the adage, “defense wins championships.”
“Of course,” Martindale said. “I’m a defensive coordinator,[comma] so of course I’m going to say that.”