The bedrock of Baltimore Ravens football has always been defense. That much could be counted on, year after year.
This isn't breaking news, but 2021 was not one of those years.
The Ravens finished 25th in yards allowed, their lowest mark since 1997. They were 28th in DVOA, their lowest finish since their inaugural season. Baltimore was last in pass defense, giving up a franchise record 278.9 yards per game.
Despite being one of the league's most aggressive units (less so than previous years), Baltimore's defense didn't make many splash plays. They finished tied with the third-fewest takeaways (15) and their fewest sacks since 2015 (34).
Of course, a major factor was injuries. The Ravens lost three of their four starting members of the secondary to season-enders with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, and safety DeShon Elliott.
But the unit was not exactly thriving before injuries left it wildly short-handed down the stretch. Peters was lost before the year began, but Humphrey played 12 games and Elliott six. They were both on the field when the Raiders and Chiefs hit numerous big plays in the first two weeks, when the Bengals blew the Ravens out the first time, and when the Vikings put up 31 points after the bye.
Injuries played a big part, but they weren't the only culprit. The Ravens' offense had more injuries in both number and significance and finished sixth in total yards in the league.
All of this led to the Ravens and Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale parting ways Friday after he and Head Coach John Harbaugh had "several productive conversations" and "agreed to move forward in separate directions."
According to MMQB's Albert Breer, the Ravens didn't offer Martindale an extension before going into the final year of his contract and other teams "kicked the tires on his availability." According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Martindale is "expected to be one of the hottest assistant hires out there."
I like Wink. He's an excellent coordinator, a stand-up guy, and always entertaining. His players love him. We all love his mullet, chain popping and one-liners. Martindale's aggressive, fun Rex Ryan-like style similarly made him a favorite. And he led one of the NFL's best units for his first three years as coordinator. So, to be honest, despite this season's statistical shortcomings, I was a bit caught off guard by the move.
After processing it, I think this may speak to something bigger. As Harbaugh stated, "Sometimes the moment comes, and it's the right time." That "moment" may be the Ravens facing a potential overhaul this offseason.
Not only will the defense have a new coordinator, but more than half of the starters heading into the 2022 season could be "new" faces from the start of 2021.
Baltimore has one of the oldest starting defensive lines in football with Calais Campbell (35), Brandon Williams (32) and Derek Wolfe (31). Campbell is contemplating retirement. Williams is a free agent. Wolfe's status is unknown after missing the entire season due to a back injury.
The secondary could see the most change, as Elliott and Anthony Averett are pending free agents, veteran Jimmy Smith could retire, and the Ravens have to decide whether to stick with Peters and Tavon Young or take substantial salary-cap savings.
Middle linebacker Josh Bynes, who was brought back midseason, is a pending free agent. Baltimore needs to restock its outside linebacker corps again as Justin Houston was on a one-year deal, Pernell McPhee could retire, and Tyus Bowser will be coming off a major injury suffered in the final game.
While Ravens fans are clamoring for a first-round offensive tackle in the Draft, Baltimore could throw a dart at the defensive depth chart and hit a spot worthy of a first-round pick.
The Ravens' defensive philosophies aren't going to change. Harbaugh always wants an aggressive, physical defense. That's what Baltimore is at its core. Harbaugh could make an internal defensive coordinator hire or bring back someone familiar to help ensure that vision.
But one thing is for sure. The Ravens aren't keeping the status quo after a year that didn't measure up to the franchise's high defensive standards, and now they have a chance to build the next iteration of Baltimore's bullies.