Ravens DC Mike Macdonald created a dominant pass rush without an alpha dog

The Baltimore Ravens currently have the NFL’s best defense by DVOA, passing a Cleveland Browns defense that looked downright historic in the first half of the 2023 season. Second-year head coach Mike Macdonald has dialed up fronts and pressures that lead the NFL in sacks with 31, while their blitz rate of 24.9% is middle of the pack.

While multiple good players are responsible for this on the field, the Ravens don’t necessarily have an alpha-dog pass rusher like a Myles Garrett, Maxx Crosby, T.J. Watt, or Aidan Hutchinson. What they do as well as any team in the league is to scheme pressure intelligently, deploying the disruptors they have in the ways that work best for their attributes.

“Well, it’s great to hear that,” Macdonald said last week, when asked about Kyle Van Noy’s positive thoughts regarding how this defense is jelling. “I didn’t catch that, but [it’s] awesome to hear. Again, that’s something that goes unnoticed. We talked about in our meeting earlier in the week – it’s about the little details that you don’t necessarily see is what makes the difference and camaraderie and selflessness and effort and execution are things that aren’t necessarily shown to the naked eye when you’re watching the tape. To answer your question, those are the things that you see in a play-in and play-out basis is execution, guys doing the things they’re coached to do, playing really hard, having great energy in the meeting rooms and focus and taking a day-to-day mentality. Those are the things that as a coach, you’re striving for all the time, and we’re chasing it still. We’re not there by any means, but we’re chasing it. You can feel it on a day-to-day basis for sure.” 

One thing this defense is successfully chasing? Opposing quarterbacks.

In the case of Van Noy, who has 16 pressures, they move him to either edge, and also as a standup 3-tech in their third-down five-man fronts and blitzes. He’s still a quick rusher who knows how to shoot gaps. 

Odafe Oweh, who also has 16 pressures, is primarily an edge-rusher, but he’ll also get pressure from 3-tech looks and nose alignments.

They’ll use Jadeveon Clowney (34 pressures) as a stunt player, exploiting his ability to move quickly over multiple gaps. 

Justin Madubuike is regarded mostly as an interior pass-rusher, and he’s great there, but eight of his 26 pressures have come from the edge or over the tackles. Most of the time he’ll work inside from those outside looks, but he’s also quick enough to bend a tackle around the edge once in a while.

Michael Pierce is their primary interior rusher, and he’s a hoss at 6-0 and 340 pounds. He’s a physically dominant player who will flash short-area quickness, but his primary job is really to take a blocker and just push him back into the pocket.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has talked about how opponent-specific Mike Macdonald’s defense is, but what I really see is a lot of smart player deployment. That should continue to an impressive degree as the 2023 season rolls along. 

In this week’s “Xs and Os with Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar,” the guys get deep into how the Ravens’ pass rush is cooking with so many ideal complementary pieces.

You can watch this week’s full “Xs and Os,” featuring all of Week 9’s biggest NFL matchups (including Ravens-Seahawks) right here:

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Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire