How the Seahawks’ Mike Macdonald has NFL offenses guessing

Seattle’s new head coach has defenses around the league following his lead.

A defensive philosophical shift is happening in the NFL, and new Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Macdonald is at the heart of it.

The league transitioned a few years ago from the Seattle Cover 3 era into the Vic Fangio shell defense era, focused on stopping explosive plays. Like those from Pete Carroll’s coaching tree, most who branched out from Fangio’s tree mostly struggled to replicate his system. However, Fangio’s overarching philosophy of keeping a lid on top of offenses succeeded in permeating the league, and its emphasis on cutting down explosive plays is a reason scoring has trended downward in the past couple of seasons.

However, not every coach wanted to sit back and just play coverage. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale went against the grain and continued to blitz as much as possible. That style saw success in Baltimore, but head coach John Harbaugh eventually wanted a more balanced, flexible attack, so he replaced Martindale with his former protege Mike Macdonald in 2022. His impact was felt immediately, and last season, the Ravens ranked first in nearly every major statistical category including DVOA.

The Seahawks’ hired him to be their head coach this offseason, while his defensive line coach Zach Orr was promoted to Ravens defensive coordinator, and three other assistants got coordinator jobs elsewhere (Anthony Weaver, Dolphins; Dennard Wilson, Titans; Jesse Minter, Chargers). That means five teams this season will be running the Macdonald system — so what is that system?

Macdonald isn’t doing anything particularly unique schematically. He learned many of his blitzes and pressures from Martindale, whom he coached under from 2018-2021, except Martindale mostly used single-high safety defenses, and Macdonald calls a lot of two-deep defenses.

There are some similarities to the Fangio system on early downs. The Ravens showed a lot of two-deep safeties before rotating into their coverages to disguise. Macdonald is aggressive, but he actually doesn’t bring more than four rushers much. The Ravens have ranked 22nd in blitz percentage (13.7 percent) since 2022. Macdonald pressures offenses with the illusion of multiplicity and simulated pressures (four-man rushes with one or more rushers coming from the second or third level with one or two defensive linemen dropping into coverage).

When he does blitz, offenses usually have no idea where the pressure is coming from because his defenses can present so many different looks from week to week. The Ravens were so multiple because of the unique way Macdonald teaches and structures his pressure packages.

“What the Ravens have done so well is they pressure in so many ways that you can’t get a bead on them,” former NFL center A.Q. Shipley told The Athletic. “The other thing that’s great about them is you might watch them one week against Pittsburgh and it looks completely different against Cleveland, so it’s tough, too, because you’ve got to make so many in-game adjustments.”

One of the reasons the Ravens could present so many different looks for offenses to deal with is how Macdonald teaches his pressure packages.

Many defenses teach their fronts (where the defensive line and linebackers line up) with their blitzes. This approach makes sense because defenders have to know where to line up, what their assignments are and how to get to their assignments.

For example, on a page from the Seahawks’ 2012 defensive playbook, the staff taught this particular pressure from their “tuff” front. Tuff tells the defensive line that they’ll have four defensive linemen and two linebackers on the line with the Mike linebacker and free safety on the second level. When the defense gets the call, they know that both outside backers are rushing and every defensive lineman is running a stunt.

Instead of learning pressures attached to fronts, Macdonald teaches his players pressure patterns so they know each other’s jobs and how to execute different pressures from different fronts. This approach isn’t particularly unique to Macdonald. Some coaches teach some of their pressures this way but Macdonald completely leans into it to ensure his system is as flexible and easy to learn as possible.

Then he can easily mix fronts and pressures and add layers to them. The Ravens don’t deploy a ton of different fronts and pressures, but they have endless ways of changing the presentation for offenses. Essentially, he’s taking Sean McVay’s philosophy of making everything look the same until it isn’t but applying it to his pressure packages.

Another important feature of Macdonald’s system is purposeful nomenclature for each pressure. Though using nomenclature seems like a simple tool, the language of football — even at the highest level — can be confusing with terminology drawn from different systems and eras that have nothing to do with each other.

Macdonald has a naming system for his pressures that makes it easier for players to learn and recall. For example, the defense could have 10 ways to run a simulated pressure with one player blitzing from the strong side and the weak end dropping into coverage. Each of those pressures is siloed together. Hypothetically, those types of simulated pressures could be named after NBA teams, so if players hear an NBA team name, they know what pressure they are running. The first letter of the name could be where it’s coming from, and from there, they can figure out everyone else’s job.

For example, “Suns” can tell the defense that the safety is blitzing from the strong side, while the end from the weak side is dropping. The defense can run “Suns” from multiple fronts without teaching an entirely new blitz.

Also, by understanding the entire pressure pattern or call because of the name rather than just their individual jobs, they know what everyone else is doing, which makes it easier to switch positions when they want to add confusion for offenses.

“He’s doing a unique job. … I’ve kind of never experienced it,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said at minicamp during Macdonald’s first season as defensive coordinator. “He’s really having everybody understand the whole philosophy of mainly just the group of coverages, as opposed to: ‘You got this call. How do you play this call?’ He’s kind of saying, grouping these calls all together, like, ‘What is the whole idea of this call?’ So I think he’s done a really good job of kind of really helping us all be smarter, to where I know what the D-line’s doing. I also know what the linebacker is doing. I also know what the safety’s doing — because ‘The reason why I call this defense is because of this.’”

One coach I spoke with compared Macdonald collecting versatile players and moving them around on defense to what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan does with Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey on offense. It messes with the opponent’s rules for handling certain personnel packages and looks, and there is only so much time a team has to prepare during the week.

“It simplifies your offensive game plan a little bit,” the offensive coordinator said. “And so that’s the battle and the struggle that you go when you face a team like that. Not only are they physical and fast and they’re good players. Now, you kind of have this scheme that makes you test all your rules in the run game, test all your rules in the pass game.”

Though there are schematic hallmarks to Macdonald’s system, it’s really a system of teaching that allows the defense to be as flexible as possible. It’s based on keeping the teaching simple and inexpensive for the defense while forcing offenses to feel like they must prepare for the bar exam. It’s not a copy-and-paste system. How the coaches from Macdonald’s tree can replicate how the system was taught in Baltimore will be key for creating the flexibility that made the Ravens’ defense a nightmare to prepare for. Of course, it never hurts to have fast, physical, smart and versatile players, too.

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