After rapid coaching ascent, Orr embracing new challenge as Ravens defensive coordinator

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The coaching ascent of new Ravens defensive coordinator Zach Orr has been remarkable. 

Seven years after the discovery of a congenital spine condition ended his NFL playing career just as it was beginning to blossom, the man who once roamed the middle of the Baltimore defense will now be calling it from the sideline. But as much as head coach John Harbaugh believes in Orr to make him the youngest defensive coordinator in franchise history and the second youngest in the NFL today, his lack of experience is as undeniable as the Ravens’ proud defensive tradition.  

Orr is three years younger than predecessor Mike Macdonald was at the time of his 2022 hiring, but Macdonald was coming off a one-year apprenticeship running the University of Michigan defense for Jim Harbaugh. In fact, Orr will join Marvin Lewis as the only defensive coordinators in team history not to serve in the same capacity at a previous NFL or college stop, but Lewis also had 15 years of experience as a linebackers coach for four college programs and Pittsburgh — working under Steelers defensive coordinators Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau from 1992-95 — before being appointed the inaugural Ravens defensive coordinator at age 37.

The Lewis hiring proved to be outstanding, of course, but the unknown with Orr will linger until he begins making defensive calls this fall.

“You definitely have to think about that. That’s going to be something that we’re going to have to work through and he’s going to have to get on board with quick,” said Harbaugh, who is now on his seventh defensive coordinator since becoming head coach in 2008. “I think he’s been studying that and how to do that all the way through. Talking to him, I have a comfort level that he’ll be good at it, but he’s got to go do it.”

Orr’s lack of experience is magnified with the departure of prominent defensive assistants Anthony Weaver and Dennard Wilson in addition to Macdonald leaving to become the head coach in Seattle, but it’s not as though the 31-year-old hasn’t been preparing for this moment. The 2016 second-team All-Pro linebacker recalls fellow coaches telling him a few years ago that he needed to start thinking like a defensive coordinator if he aspired to be one eventually.   

The manner in which the Ravens coaching staff exchanges ideas and works together made it easy for the 2014 undrafted free agent out of North Texas to begin preparing more like Macdonald, Wink Martindale, or Dean Pees. Orr also worked under Joe Cullen in Jacksonville as an outside linebackers coach when the former Ravens defensive line coach became the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator in 2021. 

(New Ravens defensive coordinator Zach Orr holds his introductory press conference in Owings Mills.)

“If you have aspirations of being a coordinator, when you’re watching the film throughout the week [and] watching the film on your own, you need to start seeing how you would call the game, how you would stop certain game plans [and] certain schemes, and how you attack certain schemes,” said Orr, who is the first former Ravens player to become a coordinator for the team. “I always did that, always had the conversations. Being here, it’s easy because it’s a collaborative effort in the game plan. You’re very into that role. 

“The defensive coordinator has the final say, but here it’s a collaborative effort.”

Still, another voice or two on the staff with play-calling experience would probably help Orr transition from coaching the inside linebackers to running the entire defensive operation. That might help explain the reported hiring of Doug Mallory to coach the defensive backs. Not only does the 59-year-old have a coaching history with the Harbaugh family, but he’s served as a defensive coordinator for four different college programs over his career. 

As for where Orr plans to call plays during games, he’ll be down on the sideline “to look players in their eyes” and gauge “how guys are feeling out there.” Given his demonstrative passion interacting with the players he’s coached, that’s hardly surprising.

No one would have guessed seven years ago that Orr would be in this spot, but he’s done nothing but embrace the coaching life since being told his playing career was over. Grateful the Ravens gave him an opportunity that didn’t afford him the time to “sit there and hang my head,” Orr hardly sounds intimidated about calling a defense for the first time. 

“I’ve seen it done. I’ve been a part of it, and 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 anything you do. When you’re not confident that you can do a job, that means you haven’t prepared. If you prepare the right way like you’re supposed to prepare, you’re going to be confident.”

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