Ravens/Michigan Defense being spread around the league

Let’s talk about this scheme. The system that the Ravens and Michigan run…whatever you want to call it…was the dominant scheme in football during the 2023 season.

Michigan had the number one defense in college football, going 15-0 and winning the national championship.

Baltimore went 13-4, absolutely choking every game they lost where the starters played (including in the playoffs), with the number one defense in the NFL. The first to lead the league in PPG, sacks, and takeaways in the same year. Had they not crapped the bed offensively against Kansas City, they’d be getting ready to play a team they already dismantled on the road for the Super Bowl.

Here are some notable offensive coaches that played against this defensive scheme this year and how many points their team put up against the system:

Mike Locksley - 24
Ryan Day - 24
Tommy Rees - 20
Kalen DeBoer/Ryan Grubb - 13

Bobby Slowik - 9/10
Zac Taylor - 24/20
Shane Steichen- 22
Kevin Stefanski - 3/33
Ben Johnson - 6
Kellen Moore - 10
Sean McVay - 29
Kyle Shanahan - 19
Mike McDaniel - 19
Andy Reid - 17

These two defensive staffs have since been picked apart, and rightfully so. Look at the production. Here are the guys who have been taken from each staff and who I expect will call plays for their respective teams next season…

Mike Macdonald - BAL DC → (SEA)
Jesse Minter - UM DC → (LAC)
Anthony Weaver - BAL AHC/DL → (MIA)
Dennard Wilson - BAL DC → (TEN)

I expect that Baltimore will run a similar system after the promotion of LB coach Zach Orr to DC, however it remains to be seen what Michigan will do, especially after their DL coach was hired for the same position with the Chargers.

There’s a good amount of Michigan fans on this board, and there’s a good amount of people who are just very knowledgeable about the game, Michigan fan or not. What to you makes this style of defense so unique and exotic? What would you even call it? How do you beat it?

I assume we’re going to see the answer to that last question as more people within the system have to be playing other people who run that same system. The coaches who coach it obviously know what it doesn’t work against.

What do you guys think?

Great thread ,

I’m just going to point out 2 things that I know of.

1 - it has to do with disguising the coverage pre snap

They calling Mike Macdonald the Sean McVay of Defenses

2- don’t underestimate KC defense , they owned that Balt offense more so then them crapping the bed.

Attacking SPAGS style defense is Aaron Glenn style now too

That’s because he is.

If Dan had turned out like every other previous Lions coach that was out after year 3, I would have been SLAMMING the table for Macdonald. He’s a superstar.

This could be a very long analysis…

But, to keep it reasonably simple, the two most common names I’ve heard for it are ‘Amoeba,’ because it is constantly changing shape, or ‘Constrictor’ based on stifling what the offense likes to do It is quite complex schematically, and relies on consistently messing with the offense’s “reads.”

For instance, pre-snap, it will look like one pass route should be the primary. However, after the snap, the defensive roles change and shift unexpectedly. As a result, the read that looked open is very much closed.

It is similar with the run game defense. The LBs and safeties show one spot, and then move to their ‘real’ spot, sometimes even after the snap. So, the o-line ‘reads’ for their blocks get messed up, and then there is a tackler with no blocker.

From what I have seen, this is greatly helped by excellent defensive tackles who can impose their will. The defense ends are not focused on ‘rush the QB at all costs,’ but are trained to have gap and assignment integrity.

You need to have smart and experienced players in the back 7, because otherwise someone will mess up and you will have gaping holes.

Interestingly, this defense will also sometimes leave guys looking wiiiiide open. However, because of the messed up reads, the QB rarely has time to find that guy before getting constricted by the D-line.

In my opinion, it doesn’t aim to ‘impose it’s will’ on the offense through aggression. Instead, it just frustrates and stymies the offense until it gives up one element of it’s game or makes a mistake. For instance, Alabama largely abandoned the deeper passing game after the first half, because Michigan was screwing with it so badly.

Now, like most defenses, it can be blown up by mutants like Marvin Harrison Jr or JSN. But offenses have to be very patient (and have a good o-line) to wear it down, and a lot of teams lack that patience.

I am not an expert, but those are my observations after watching the Ravens/MacDonald/Minter scheme with Michigan in the past three years…


Thank you for the insight! This sounds like a progression of the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed Ravens. They liked to adjust and confuse offenses as well. Ray would also throw “watch parties” where the guys would hang out at his mansion and watch film together in a party atmosphere, and they would spend time dreaming up ways to confuse the next offense. This worked because John Harbaugh encourages the players to have input into the upcoming gameplan, and he makes a point to use some of their ideas out of respect. Ray said that the main starters on defense knew eachother’s roles so well that they would sometimes switch roles on the fly. Even the coaches wouldn’t know what was going on.

It also sounds like a defense that is ran kind of like Tony Dungy had the offense run for the Super Bowl against the Bears. Dungy obviously knew every single detail about Lovie Smith’s defense. So in preparation for the game, Dungy spent time with the offense tweaking key reads. Dungy said he specifically targeted the monster in the middle, Brian Urlacher. They would do something slightly counterintuitive to what they were really doing, just so that Urlacher would have a moment of hesitation because he couldn’t trust his reads.

On this play they spent so much effort trying to make the run look like it was going to be playaction that they didn’t block it correctly and the RB got blown up and fumbled. Of course Urlacher jumped on it. :rofl: But even on this failed play they were able to keep Urlacher guessing and not penetrating the backfield.

IMO I have think there reasons for success differ whether we are talking about the college for pro level.

At the college level Michigan had two major advantages:

1:) Jimmies and Joes. They had probably three of the top 25 DTs on the same team, two lockdown corners and loads of da 2 to early day three guys. Grant, Johnson and Graham might all be top 20 picks next year. Given the regular season schedule the talent gap was rather huge but even against the best teams there were certain position groups that they had definitive advantage at.

2:) I do think they disguise coverages and pressures at level of proficiency and complexity level usually preserved for the NFL. I commented before the game that if Penix has a weakness it’s struggling with processing and anticipation. Surely enough he wasn’t able to handle that aspect. I do think that their pressure packages also often had down and distance given their run defense as well as a schematic advantage of having two corners in which you are absolutely fine leaving them on islands. If it becomes a 9 on 9 contest it’s significantly easier

To me the situation was a bit different in Baltimore.

While they did have a slight Jimmies and Joes advantage I think it likely had more to do with game script than anything else. McDonald does call a good game and they have shown unusual personnel quirks to lean into (two big fast corners, exceptional range at LBer, high end safety play one of whom is a bit of a unicorn in terms of versatility).

But the big difference with Baltimore and Michigan was the run defense. Michigan could reliably play one handed bc of that run D. Baltimore could be run at. They were 20th in yard per carry allowed. But once Lamar and the offense took off teams couldn’t stay in it long enough to take advantage.

Personally I don’t find Michigan or Baltimore’s defense as anything fundamentally different on the NFL level. On the college level I do think the complexity was a bit rare. College DC’s seem to prefer the see ball, hit ball approach.

Wink to Michigan as DC? That could be fun.

I never would have thought that one was possible, but it sounds like it is very real depending on what Cullen does.