Ravens' run to AFC title game vs. Chiefs fueled by surprises

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Mike Macdonald didn't answer the repeated calls from an unknown number because he thought it was a recruit, and he believed his football coaching career was over.

Macdonald's time as a graduate assistant at the University of Georgia had ended in 2014 after he received his master's degree in sports management with a 4.0 grade-point average. With no offers to continue coaching, he reluctantly decided to shift to finance and signed a contract with KPMG, a global accounting firm.

Then Macdonald noticed a voicemail from that persistent yet unfamiliar number. It was from the Baltimore Ravens, who were offering a one-year coaching internship.

As Macdonald listened to the message -- which he later said "was just like a call from God" -- the hand holding the phone began to shake with excitement.

"You're thinking about your professional life and your career and you realize how fortunate you are with things that happened along the way," Macdonald said.

A decade later, Macdonald is the coordinator for a historic defense that helped the Ravens advance to Sunday's AFC Championship Game against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs (3 p.m. ET, CBS).

Among Macdonald's first assignments as an intern was to draw up the opponents' plays on cards for coaches to use at practice. Now, he has devised a scheme of versatility and unpredictability where 355-pound nose tackle Michael Pierce drops into coverage, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike sometimes crashes the edge and strong safety Kyle Hamilton lines up everywhere.

The Ravens became the first team in NFL history to lead the league in fewest points allowed (16.5), most sacks (60) and most takeaways (31) in a single season. Baltimore shut down this year's best offenses, including dominating the top three -- the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions -- and quarterbacks were hit so hard five had to leave games this season. In the 34-10 divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans on Saturday, the Ravens held Houston without an offensive touchdown and didn't let standout rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud run a play inside Baltimore's 25-yard line.

In a matter of two years, Macdonald went from being the NFL's youngest defensive coordinator to one of the hottest head-coaching candidates. At age 36, he has interviewed with five teams about their vacancies: the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Chargers and Washington Commanders.

"I just think he's a wizard," Ravens middle linebacker Roquan Smith said. "He more so finds out what teams struggle with, [what] a team's weakness is, and [knowing] our strength and being able to make those into a game-plan situation. It's pretty sweet."

While quarterback Lamar Jackson remains the headliner for the AFC's top-seeded Ravens, their defense has been just as integral in getting Baltimore to its first AFC Championship Game in 11 seasons. Here are some of the players who made this year's Ravens defense uniquely successful.

Kyle Hamilton, safety

Key stat: He was the only player with at least 80 tackles, 3 sacks and 4 interceptions this season.

A couple of weeks before the 2022 draft, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had one question for Hamilton during his visit to Baltimore.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

The Ravens held the No. 14 pick, and Hamilton -- an All-American from Notre Dame -- was considered a top-five talent. But, whether it was his slower-than-expected 40-yard-dash time (4.59) or teams not prioritizing safeties, Hamilton slid to Baltimore, which selected him despite having two proven starters at that position.

In his second season, Hamilton has become one of the Ravens' best and most versatile players. Hamilton and Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner are the only players taken in the first round of the 2022 draft to be named All-Pro and selected for the Pro Bowl.

The Ravens consider Hamilton one of their most deceptive players, and it goes beyond him lining up as a deep safety, slot cornerback, inside linebacker and even defensive tackle.

"There's nothing that kid can't do," Ravens secondary coach Chris Hewitt said. "Don't let the baby face fool you. He'll try to rip your face off."

Hamilton is the first Ravens player in 22 years to record double-digit tackles for loss (10) and passes defensed (13) in a single season.

"I call him 'The Avatar,'" Ravens outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said. "He is a 6-4 safety and can run [and] can hit."

Justin Madubuike, defensive tackle

Key stat: His 13 sacks were the most by a Raven since Elvis Dumervil had 17 in 2014.

When analyzing why Madubuike has produced one of the biggest breakout seasons in team history, outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith believes the sacks increased when he worked on different ways to get to the quarterback.

Madubuike has brought down passers with spins, cross-chops and chop-drive moves. He's been known to come up to Smith before games and ask to work on his technique.

"'Beeks' is really the kind of dude that is absolutely trying to knock your head off every play," Smith said. "There is no other way to put it."

Madubuike became the first Ravens player to record double-digit sacks in a season since Terrell Suggs in 2017, and few could have predicted he would become the most dominant interior pass-rusher in the league. He had 8.5 sacks in his first three years (42 games) combined.

Baltimore guard Kevin Zeitler said some defensive linemen run around you while others run over you. Madubuike is different.

"He can do everything," Zeitler said.

Madubuike's streak of 11 straight games with at least a half-sack -- it ended on Christmas Day -- is tied for the longest in NFL single-season history. His performance has been timely, considering he's in a contract year.

Pro Football Focus projects him to receive a contract that averages $23 million per season, which would rank as the fourth highest for a defensive tackle. If the Ravens are unable to sign him to a long-term deal, they are expected to place the franchise tag on him.

"He's walked in this year with just mission-minded [focus] from the beginning," Ravens defensive line coach Anthony Weaver said. "I'm talking about in March, and to see it all come to fruition has been awesome."

Jadeveon Clowney, LB

Key stat: His 24% pass rush win rate was the fifth-best in the NFL.

As general manager Eric DeCosta puts it, the Ravens had "flirted" with Clowney for years. It just took until this year for the sides to come together for what has been perhaps the best season of his nine-year career.

"We've always thought his game translated to ours," DeCosta said. "It just was really kind of the perfect situation, because we had a need and he was available and he didn't have the market that he's had.

"So we looked at it as kind of a low-risk, high-reward, high-upside move. I think he was at the stage of his career that he just wanted to go someplace that was very stable, no drama and with a chance to win games."

At 30, Clowney didn't receive much interest last summer after being sent home by the Cleveland Browns at the end of the 2022 season for making critical comments about his usage. Baltimore signed Clowney to a one-year, incentive-filled $2.5 million deal in the middle of August -- a significant drop from his $10 million payout a year ago -- and there weren't many expectations for the No. 1 pick of the 2014 draft.

Clowney's only goal entering the season was to play every game. Not only did he play a full season, but Clowney nearly reached double-digit sacks for the first time. He finished with a career-high 9.5 sacks.

"There's nobody in this building, probably except Lamar Jackson, who's had as much pressure as Jadeveon Clowney," Chuck Smith said. "[Because of] the complementary pieces around him, he's not Jadeveon Clowney, the first-round pick, the No. 1 guy. He's just 'J.'"

He rejuvenated his image as a pass-rusher with a career-best 46 first pressures.

Clowney's biggest play was a strip sack of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in the red zone in Week 12. His most memorable moment was his prolonged celebration after surpassing nine sacks, which earned him a total of $1.75 million in incentives.

"I think he has many years left in the tank [with] the way he goes out," Roquan Smith said. "People may say he's lost things in there, but I see it week in and week out. This guy is dangerous out there."

Geno Stone, safety

Key stat: His seven interceptions in the regular season were the most by a Raven since Ed Reed had eight in 2010.

Stone remembers the exact day and time -- April 25 at 10:48 a.m. -- that he wrote down five goals for himself. One of them was to make three interceptions.

Stone checked that off in Week 6 and finished with seven interceptions, which ranked second in the NFL.

"I think he's a good example of someone that takes care of the details on a day-to-day basis, comes to work every day, does his best, doesn't complain, doesn't get caught up in things [like], 'Why is this not happening for me?'" Harbaugh said. "It's a good lesson I think for young people. If they're going to watch that [and say], 'I want to be great at something' or 'I want to be a pro football player,' watch Geno Stone and what he's been doing."

A seventh-round pick in 2020 (the 21st safety drafted that year), Stone was waived twice by Baltimore in his rookie season before getting re-signed and primarily playing on special teams in 2021 and 2022. He had one interception in his first 34 games.

Then, this season, Stone made 11 starts filling in for injured safeties Marcus Williams and Hamilton, and he instantly became a ball magnet as the center fielder on defense. His streak of four games with a pick is the second-longest in franchise history.

"They always say respect is earned, not given," Stone said. "I try to go out there every day, earn my respect, show what I can do in this league."