After four years as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, Don “Wink” Martindale is out.
Martindale spent 10 seasons as a defensive coach with the Ravens, joining their 2012 Super Bowl run. In 2018, he transitioned from assistant coach to defensive coordinator, and the Ravens had the NFL’s top total defense and 2nd-best scoring defense.
2021 was a mixed bag for Martindale and the Ravens’ defense. On one hand, they allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL and were among the most efficient teams at stopping the run. On the other hand, they allowed the most passing yards in the NFL and were second in passing yards allowed per play.
The Ravens were hit with injuries to their secondary and defensive front, losing three key contributors before the season started, including 2019 All-Pro Marcus Peters. Two of Baltimore’s defensive backs, DeShon Elliott and 2019 All-Pro Marlon Humphrey suffered season-ending injuries during the season.
Martindale has received interest as a head coach in recent years, but he is more likely to be a defensive coach elsewhere. His pre-Baltimore tenure included coaching a historically bad 2010 Denver Broncos defense. He has served as a linebackers coach for the Oakland Raiders, Broncos, and Ravens.
The Ravens have traditionally been a 3-4 team. For the uninitiated, this means the Ravens would deploy three defensive linemen and four linebackers in their base defense. With Martindale gone, the Ravens could make the transition to the 4-3 defense.
As a blanket term, both 3-4 and 4-3 are misleading because teams often vary their looks throughout the game. Many teams use nickel personnel (five defensive backs) as their de facto base defense, and the Ravens are no different. For a fully healthy Ravens team, this is when Peters, Humphrey, Elliott, Chuck Clark, and Tavon Young are on the field.
Switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense requires a slight adjustment in the roles members of the front seven play. There are pros and cons to the numbers involved in both formations, but the best defenses match personnel to the situation.
For example, 3-4 defensive linemen are often much bigger body types. The defensive tackle in the middle must command double teams or even triple teams. The defensive ends tend to be larger, pocket-pushing types rather than speed rushers. In theory, the three-down linemen will eat up enough blocks on the interior to allow the four linebackers to make plays.
Transitioning to a 4-3 defense offers Baltimore a unique position for their top-two edge defenders. Both Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser are on the smaller side on the edge, but they would be able to play 4-3 defensive end rather than 3-4 outside linebacker. This gives the Ravens extra versatility when it comes to zone blitzing. For example, Oweh’s athleticism could be a bonus in short coverage against running backs while one of these three linebackers behind Oweh can rush the passer in his place.
Moving to a 4-3 would likely help Patrick Queen. He would be useful as an extra blitzer when necessary, but a more stout defensive line would lead to Queen having fewer decisions to make as an outside linebacker. He would be asked to do more in coverage, but his physical tools align to a rover-type linebacker with the speed to get to a running back in space. If he can improve his tackling, Queen could become a star linebacker with fewer blocks to shed in the middle of the field.
Switching defenses at any point is a difficult proposition to make for an NFL team. For decades, the Ravens have drafted to fit a certain mold of defense. If they were to transition, they would have to adjust their draft process on the fly and see how that applies to the current roster. While many players will fit both systems, the players currently on the Ravens were hand-selected to fit the old system.
Changing of the Guard?
The Ravens will conduct interviews to fill their defensive coordinator role in the coming weeks, and the difference between a 3-4 defense and a 4-3 defense will likely guide at least a bit of their decision-making. If there was a year to switch, 2022 would likely be the year. The Ravens have a handful of players that are likely smooth transitions into a new scheme, and they have a bevy of draft picks.
The Ravens could have more roster upheaval than normal seasons, but if the on-field product is better than the disaster that was the 2021 defense, it would be for the best for the organization. Players who are not scheme fits could be dealt to other franchises, accelerating the change within the Ravens’ defense.
The Ravens must make crucial decisions with no fewer than five key pieces from the 2021 defense. Peters and Elliott may have played their final snaps as members of the Ravens. Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams are threats to retire. Anthony Averett could receive a lucrative deal elsewhere. Coupled with a looming extension for Lamar Jackson, this is an offseason that the Ravens must have success.
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