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The Ravens have fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, a surprising shakeup that comes less than two weeks after the end of a disappointing season.
In a statement the Ravens released Friday, coach John Harbaugh said that he and Martindale, who had one year remaining on his contract in Baltimore, had “agreed to move forward in separate directions.”
“We have had a great run on defense, and I am very proud of what has been accomplished and the work he has done,” Harbaugh added in the statement. “Don has been a major contributor to the success of our defense since 2012, and especially since he became defensive coordinator four years ago. He has done a great job. Now it is time to pursue other opportunities. Sometimes the moment comes, and it’s the right time.”
Martindale’s dismissal is the first domino to fall in an offseason that could reshape the Ravens’ defense, which struggled throughout a disappointing 8-9 season. The team allowed 369.8 yards per game over its season-ending six-game losing streak, which sank the Ravens’ playoff hopes after an 8-3 start.
Martindale, a beloved coach among players and one of the NFL’s most aggressive play-callers, had served under Harbaugh since 2012. After coaching the team’s linebackers for six years, he took over as defensive coordinator for Dean Pees in January 2018.
From 2018 to 2020, the Ravens had one of the NFL’s highest-paid and highest-performing defenses, ranking in the top 10 in overall efficiency each year, according to Football Outsiders. In Martindale’s first three years as coordinator, the Ravens led the league in scoring average (18.2 points per game allowed) and total defense (307.8 yards per game) and tied for first in defensive touchdowns (12).
“In our [defensive] room, the way he speaks to us, talks to us and just relates with us, it translates to how we play for him,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said last January. “We have a lot of different packages, different things guys can do, all kinds of stuff, and he makes sure everybody knows that. He puts everybody in position to play at their strengths.”
This year, however, injuries and inconsistency, especially in their well-regarded secondary, led to a precipitous fall. The Ravens finished 28th overall in DVOA, their lowest ranking since the franchise’s first year in Baltimore. They also had the NFL’s worst pass defense; their 278.9 yards allowed per game were an NFL high and franchise record.
Martindale, who’d endeared himself to those around the team facility with his swagger, blitz-happy approach and one-liners, increasingly found himself under the microscope as the Ravens’ season spiraled. After a 20-19 loss in Week 13 to the Steelers, Harbaugh was asked what had changed on defense in the fourth quarter. After being held to three points over the first three quarters, Pittsburgh and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scored 17 points in the fourth.
“They hit [Cover 0] coverage a couple times,” Harbaugh said, referring to an all-out blitz that leaves defenders in single coverage downfield. “You go to the well too many times, and they get you. That’s what happened.”
Three weeks later, Martindale was asked how the Ravens planned to defend Cincinnati Bengals rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who in the teams’ first meeting had finished with 201 receiving yards and helped quarterback Joe Burrow pass for 416 yards overall in a 41-17 win in Baltimore. The Ravens were coming off a narrow Week 15 loss to Green Bay in which they’d committed to double-teaming Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, only to watch quarterback Aaron Rodgers finish with 268 yards and three touchdowns.
“Davante Adams, he’s one of the top two receivers in the league, and he’s not No. 2, and Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Fame quarterback, and I don’t think we’re ready to buy a gold jacket for Joe yet,” Martindale said.
The remarks made their way to Cincinnati. Against a Ravens defense missing starters at every level — most notably at cornerback, where Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey were lost for the year and where Anthony Averett was soon to suffer his own season-ending injury — the Bengals rolled. In a 41-21 win, Burrow went 37-for-46 for 525 yards and four touchdowns. Cincinnati finished with 575 yards of offense, a franchise worst for the Ravens.
Two weeks later, the Ravens’ postseason hopes died with another loss to the Steelers. After struggling for three quarters against a depleted Ravens defense, Roethlisberger led a go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, then a game-winning field-goal drive in overtime.
The Ravens ended the season with just 15 takeaways (nine interceptions and six fumbles), their fewest since 2015, and 34 sacks, their fewest since 2016. The pass rush finished 24th in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Reference, despite the front office’s offseason investment in outside linebackers Tyus Bowser, Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh. Even the Ravens’ blitz rate was uncharacteristic; at 31.1%, it ranked sixth in the league, the defense’s first time under 39.6% in Martindale’s tenure.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” Martindale said before the Ravens’ season finale. “We’ve changed up different things that we haven’t done in the past, because of the players that we’ve had, and the resiliency and fight that every one of them has.”
“With the injuries, I can say that’s probably a key part that changed our minds about a lot of things,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said after the season. “But at the same time, you never know how the season would have played out, you never know what the coaches would have called, what they would have preferred. … You never know with just how the season played out and all the teams that we had to play, and [if] we would have had key matchups; it’s tough to say. So we’ll have a plan next year, for sure, with all the guys coming back.”
It won’t be Martindale’s plan, though. The Ravens could make an outside hire for his replacement, but since Marvin Lewis was named the team’s first defensive coordinator before the 1996 season, every successor has been an in-house promotion.
The Ravens’ 2022 defense will have some holes to fix. With linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams headed for free agency, a strong run defense could soon need an overhaul. Cornerbacks Tavon Young, Averett and Smith are unlikely to return to Baltimore, and Marcus Peters is recovering from a torn ACL, weakening an already inconsistent secondary. Talented young players like Oweh, Queen, lineman Justin Madubuike and safety Brandon Stephens have had promising but fitful starts to their careers.
Martindale, meanwhile, is expected to be a heavily sought-after coordinator candidate. Two years after he was linked to the New York Giants’ head coaching job, he’ll start over somewhere outside Baltimore.
“He can coach great players, average players, can coach them all; they are going to feel like King Kong,” former Ravens defensive coordinator and current ESPN analyst Rex Ryan, who coached alongside Martindale at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1990s, said last year. “That is what the great ones do. The thing about ‘Wink’ is, he can be himself, genuine, which is why players like him. They love that he is who he is.”