OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' defense understands how this looks. The unit is marching through unfamiliar territory as it prepares for this coming season. This is a defense that's been accustomed to rave reviews and dependable dominance. Now it's learning how it feels to pursue something that's been lost, knowing full well how critical a return to excellence is to all this team hopes to accomplish.
The 2021 season was something Baltimore's defense needed to put behind it quickly. It was a humbling campaign marred by injuries, inconsistency and -- most shockingly -- an inability to instill much fear in the minds of opposing offenses. For a franchise that has consistently produced some of the NFL's best defenses over the past two decades, it was a disturbing reality to suffer through with each passing week. This is why it says plenty that the Ravens didn't spend much time dwelling on that frustration during this offseason.
There's no mystery as to why the Ravens struggled so mightily to defend last year. The only thing that matters today is how they set the record straight this fall.
"We haven't really had a lot of conversations about last year," said Mike Macdonald, the team's first-year defensive coordinator. "We talked to a lot of the guys when we got here about how they thought it went and things they wanted to change and improve upon. And that was it. I think everyone decided that we're putting it behind us. We have big goals to pursue, and when you start talking about last year, it kind of puts you in the wrong direction."
The numbers speak for themselves. The Ravens had the league's worst pass defense (allowing 278.9 passing yards per game) and ranked 19th in scoring defense (the team hadn't ranked lower than ninth in that category in the five previous seasons). Sure, the run defense remained stout, but that didn't mean a whole lot. Opposing quarterbacks couldn't wait to face this team as the season played out, with Cincinnati's Joe Burrow throwing for 941 yards and seven touchdowns in two games against Baltimore.
Injuries played a huge factor in those numbers, which is why the Ravens are so eager to see their secondary whole again. Cornerback Marcus Peters hasn't fully recovered from a torn ACL sustained in last year's training camp, but his eventual return will be a welcome sight. Fellow cornerback Marlon Humphrey has been practicing throughout the offseason -- he missed the final five games of 2021 with a torn pectoral muscle -- but head coach John Harbaugh is being cautious with him, as well. Humphrey returned to practice Tuesday after missing a couple sessions, but the two-time Pro Bowler didn't participate in full. The Ravens also have dealt with injuries to two other promising cornerbacks (Brandon Stephens and Jalyn Armour-Davis) during camp.
The Ravens should once again field one of the league's most disruptive pass defenses if they can stay healthy. Along with adding another veteran cornerback in Kyle Fuller this offseason, Baltimore has a bevy of talented safeties, from players familiar with the system (Chuck Clark, Tony Jefferson) to a major free-agent acquisition (Marcus Williams) to one of this year's two first-round picks (Kyle Hamilton).
"We have a lot of talent here," said Williams, who spent the previous five seasons with New Orleans. "We're going to ball out as long as we do our jobs. Each person has specific talents, and in this defense, we'll all be able to use them."
"It's a great problem to have and we're working through it," Macdonald said when asked about finding playing time for all his defensive backs. "The great thing is that, on a game-to-game basis, we can easily get to some things that [an offense] might not have seen that gives us the best matchups. That's probably the easiest way to go about it. But it's going to be a challenge for us to make sure the best guys are out there in given certain situations. Right now, we're still battling to see who earns this first tip of the cap, but as long as everybody stays healthy, we have a lot of flexibility to create the matchups we want to create."
Macdonald's creativity will mean just as much to how quickly this defense rebounds. He spent seven seasons in Baltimore before taking the defensive coordinator job at Michigan in 2021, helping the Wolverines claim their first Big Ten title in 17 years. Macdonald turned heads with his inventive schemes and ability to unlock the potential in star pass rushers like Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the latter of whom Baltimore selected in the second round of this year's draft. The best thing he did in that job was realize that it's better to let the talent dictate a defense's personality instead of a relying too much on trusted schemes.
Macdonald came into Michigan thinking he might have to blitz more to harass opposing offenses. He quickly learned that he had two NFL-caliber edge rushers who could provide plenty of pressure on their own. Macdonald is now going through the same feeling-out process with the Ravens. He's seeing the value in not relying on his familiarity with some players who were here before he left or his comfort with the system that his predecessor, Don "Wink" Martindale, ran for the previous four seasons.
There is a certain stature that comes with running the Ravens' defense that Macdonald wisely isn't falling into the trap of embracing. He's not worried about continuing a tradition of dominance. He's focused on building this version of the Ravens' defense and judging it off the expectations of all those who'll play for him. That approach has won him plenty of respect already, with second-year outside linebacker Odafe Oweh going so far as to call his new coordinator "a genius."
"The way he breaks things down, it's real simple," said Oweh, when speaking to local reporters earlier this month. "The guys that are new to the game -- guys like me -- he makes it easier, in terms of dropping (into coverage) and everything like that. Just little parts of the game that were supposed to be complicated, but he makes them real simple."
The excitement surrounding a fresh start in Baltimore is real. So is the belief that this team could quickly return to where it was two years ago, before all those injuries derailed a season filled with Super Bowl dreams. The Ravens won a lot of games in previous years by relying on a potent offense led by Lamar Jackson and a defense that rarely disappointed. They accept that much of their frustrations in 2021 resulted from factors outside of their control.
It also doesn't hurt to have a little added motivation. As Macdonald said, "In our first (defense) meeting in training camp, we said everybody in the room has something to prove, myself included. That's part of our identity this year. It's everybody."
It's a dynamic the Ravens haven't faced in a long time. It should be one that helps them return to familiar ground by season's end.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.
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