John Harbaugh didn’t take long to find his next defensive coordinator.
On Jan. 29, a day after the Ravens’ season ended in the AFC championship game, he interviewed inside linebackers coach Zach Orr for the position. A day later, the interview process continued. The next day, last Wednesday, Harbaugh called Orr into his office. Mike Macdonald had been hired as the Seattle Seahawks’ head coach; the coordinator job was Orr’s if he wanted it. He accepted on the spot.
“I was grinning from ear to ear,” Orr, 31, said at his introductory news conference Tuesday. “I’m just thankful that he has that belief in me. ... I’m going to work my butt off and do everything I can to make it right.”
That process has already started. And it could take a while. At some point, Orr joked Tuesday, he’d get around to the 800-plus unread text messages on his phone. For now, though, the NFL’s second-youngest defensive coordinator is still in the early stages of an offseason self-scout. Later this month, he’ll attend the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
The rest of Orr’s to-do list is more extensive, more time-consuming. Here’s a look at what’s next:
Rebuild the staff
When the 2024 season kicks off, four of the NFL’s 32 defenses — a full division’s worth — will be overseen by members of the Ravens’ 2023 staff. Macdonald is expected to call plays for the Seahawks’ defense. Former defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson is the Tennessee Titans’ new coordinator. Former assistant head coach and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver is the Miami Dolphins’ new coordinator. And Orr is leading the way in Baltimore.
That brain drain leaves Harbaugh and the Ravens with an obvious next step this month: Fill out the defensive staff. It could take a while. The Ravens didn’t finalize their assistant coaches last offseason until early March.
“We have to get ready to get some more coaches in here,” said Orr, who expects to be involved in the Ravens’ coaching search, which Harbaugh will lead. “Credit to the coaches that got opportunities at other places. They’re heck of coaches, and that’s why they got those opportunities, but now we’re just going through that process of figuring out who’s going to come in and do a heck of a job for us.”
The Ravens are already set to return two key defensive coaches in outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith, whose work with the Ravens’ revamped pass rush (NFL-high 60 sacks) was lauded by players and coaches alike, and pass game coordinator and secondary coach Chris Hewitt, who interviewed for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive coordinator vacancy after a stellar year for the Ravens’ pass defense.
Harbaugh is reportedly hiring Michigan defensive analyst Doug Mallory as a defensive backs coach, according to 247Sports. Before working under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, Mallory worked as a defensive assistant for the Atlanta Falcons for six seasons.
But with Orr’s promotion and Weaver’s departure, the Ravens still have openings at inside linebackers coach and defensive line coach.
“Every year, when you’re building a team, building a staff — staff is a part of a team — every year you do that, you have to build that trust, build that camaraderie, build that teamwork,” Orr said. “You have to build that every single year. Let’s say, for some reason, we had the exact same staff that we had last year this year. Last year, that really wouldn’t mean anything. You would have to rebuild that trust, because trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. Every year, you have to build it up, but I’m confident in the people we have. We do a great job of bringing in great people in this organization, so I’m fully confident, once we get the staff filled out, that we’ll be able to build that trust, we’ll be able to build that teamwork and be the best staff we can possibly be for our players.”
Match scheme with personnel
When Macdonald was named Don “Wink” Martindale’s replacement in 2022, he said there would be some philosophical “carry-over.” Orr’s instincts are similar; he said the 2024 Ravens “definitely want to build” on the schemes of the 2023 Ravens.
It’s not a bad starting point. Under Macdonald, the Ravens led the NFL in defensive efficiency, according to FTN, and became the first defense in modern league history to finish first in scoring defense, takeaways and sacks. They had one of the NFL’s most productive pass rushes despite having one of the NFL’s lowest blitz rates. They had one of the league’s better run defenses despite regularly lining up with light boxes.
The challenges for Orr will be twofold: not only staying ahead of offenses that will study the Ravens’ defense for weaknesses this offseason, but also finding workarounds for the pieces the team will lose this offseason. Because of the front office’s looming salary cap crunch, the Ravens won’t be able to keep all their star players or all their depth pieces.
“We’re always looking to get better,” Orr said. “That’s why you’ve seen great defenses here in the past. That’s what we have to do to continue. You have to look at yourself and look at how you can improve and how you can make that better, and on top of that, staying in front of what’s next. We know it’s going to be something that offenses [are] going to get together and try to present to us new this year. We’re trying to stay in front of that, but that’s part of the process, that’s part of what we’re excited to go do, and we can’t wait to get started on that.”
Orr said the Ravens will be “starting from scratch” this offseason, but the ingredients could be premium. If general manager Eric DeCosta can keep defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, a pending free agent, in Baltimore for at least another season, the defense should enter next season with an All-Pro at all three levels: along the front, at inside linebacker (Roquan Smith) and at safety (Kyle Hamilton). Orr said he’s already heard from “a lot” of players and met with others around the team’s facility.
“They’re just saying, ‘I’m going to get everything out of them,’ and I told them, ‘You’re going to get everything out of me,’” he said. “So I’m excited. I told them to get ready, get some rest, get your body ready, and when we get back, it’s on.”
Prepare as a play-caller
Before Orr, the only defensive coordinator in Ravens history to hold the job without prior coordinator experience was the franchise’s first: Marvin Lewis. His history wasn’t an impediment to success; Lewis served for six seasons in Baltimore, leading some of the NFL’s best defenses in that stretch.
But the game has changed over the past two decades. The two coordinators whom Orr coached under, Martindale and Macdonald, both had play-calling experience before taking over in Baltimore. Martindale was the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator for one season; Macdonald was Michigan’s defensive coordinator for one season as well.
Orr has no such history. The closest he’s come to coordinating, he acknowledged Tuesday, is imagining during film study sessions how he might’ve called plays.
“Being here, it’s easy [to imagine] because it’s a collaborative effort in the game plan,” he said. “You’re very into that role. Defensive coordinator has the final say-so, but here, it’s a collaborative effort. You see the process and you’re very much part of the process, even as an assistant coach.”
Orr plans to call plays from the sideline, as Macdonald did, rather than from the coaching booth, as offensive coordinator Todd Monken does — “I have to look players in their eyes and see what’s going on,” Orr explained — but his first test run won’t come until August, when the Ravens’ preseason schedule starts.
There could be growing pains. After holding the Joe Flacco-led New York Jets to three field goals in Macdonald’s debut as defensive coordinator, the Ravens allowed 30.3 points per game over the next three weeks. That 2022 defense didn’t emerge as one of the NFL’s best until the midseason arrival of Smith.
“What makes me confident is my preparation I’m going to put in,” Orr said. “I’m going to prepare my butt off, and that’s where your confidence comes in [with] anything you do. When you’re not confident that you can do a job, that means you haven’t prepared. So if you prepare the right way, like you’re supposed to prepare, you’re going to be confident. And I plan on preparing the right way.”