The Falcons are undergoing a total overhaul of both their offensive and defensive coaching staffs. Outside of the head coach and GM hirings—where Atlanta netted top candidates Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot, respectively—the next biggest position to watch was defensive coordinator. The team saw fairly significant defensive improvement in the second half of 2020 under Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich, but the unit was still average at best overall and one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses.
To run the defense, Arthur Smith was able to coax former Titans, Ravens, and Patriots DC Dean Pees out of retirement to join the Falcons. It’s a tremendous hire which has already received quite a bit of fanfare, as Pees has many exceptional defensive seasons under his belt. Perhaps even more notably, he’s been able to do it at multiple stops and with wildly different personnel.
Pees most recent stint as the DC of the Titans from 2018-2019 produced two strong finishes in scoring: 3rd (18.9 PPG) in 2018, and 12th (20.7 PPG) in 2019. For reference, the Falcons haven’t had a top-3 defensive finish since 1977, when the team was 1st in the NFL with just 9.2 PPG allowed.
On Friday, Pees gave his inaugural press conference as defensive coordinator for the Falcons. You can find all the quotes from the conference on my Twitter feed, but here are some of the most notable remarks:
Pees: The thing that really got me back into coaching was Arthur Smith. I really wasn't going to put my name out there. It was the fact that it was Smith that I talked to, he got me back into coaching. I had the itch, but I wasn't going to go out and search for a job. #Falcons— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 29, 2021
It sounds like Pees was considering coming out of retirement over the past year, but was waiting for the ideal opportunity. Pees was effusive in his praise of Arthur Smith over the length of the press conference, citing his cooperative nature and presence around staff and players as key aspects of his decision to take the job in Atlanta. He also praised Arthur Blank, Rich McKay, and the living conditions in the area as factors in taking the job.
Pees: The defensive front is not going to be simple, the front is going to be very multiple. The back end (coverage scheme) can stay fairly simple. We're not going to reveal any trade secrets though. #Falcons— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 29, 2021
Pees wouldn’t get into any specific details surrounding players or specific schemes, but he did make it clear that the 3-4/4-3 debate is thoroughly pointless. He mentioned that, during his time in Tennessee and at other stops, his defensive front was constantly shifting based on personnel and matchups. That’s clearly what he intends to do in Atlanta as well. In terms of the coverage, he also didn’t talk specifics, but seemed more likely to keep it simple.
That’s a refreshing change from the Dan Quinn era, where the Falcons would rather stubbornly trot out the same basic coverages and fronts week after week despite disastrous results. Pees made it clear that the team would be flexible with their scheme and personnel to get the best possible defense on the field.
Pees: Our talent and roster will dictate what we're going to do, not me. We can go in a lot of different directions. I think our job as coaches is to put our players in the best possible position they can be in to do their job, and that will give us the best success. #Falcons— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 29, 2021
Pees again makes it clear that he’ll be creating a scheme specific to the Falcons personnel, so we shouldn’t get too bogged down by what he’s done in previous years. Atlanta already has a somewhat interesting conglomeration of talent from Quinn’s 4-3 under front, with players like Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, Marlon Davidson, and John Cominsky all capable of filling multiple roles. They’ve also got a well-stocked LB room with 3 starter-quality options in Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokun, and Mykal Walker to play around with.
This statement also makes a potential Keanu Neal return more likely, as Neal was a questionable fit in the Cover 2 schemes that Pees ran with the Titans. It’ll be interesting to see what the Super Bowl-winning DC can come up with for Atlanta, especially since they’ll be relying on a lot of rookies and cheap veterans to fill out the roster in 2021.
Pees: We'll do whatever we can [to get pressure]. Every DC would love to 4-man rush and sack the QB 50 times a year. But you know what, if we can't do that, we'll do something else. In our defense, every position will blitz. Not just safeties and LBs. #Falcons— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 29, 2021
If you were hoping for the Falcons to stop rushing 3 and depending on only 4 rushers to create pressure, then this last quote should get you fired up. Pees emphasized that the Falcons would be bringing pressure from “everywhere”, and that any and all positions on the defense will be expected to blitz from time to time. That means CBs, safeties, and LBs. With the emergence of Deion Jones as a blitzer and the potential of Mykal Walker there as well, we should see a variety of creative packages dialed up.
That’s great news for Atlanta, as the team is unlikely to get major upgrades at EDGE in 2021 outside of maybe 1-2 draft picks and a mid-range veteran. The team will need to be creative to get consistent pressure on their opponents next season, but it sounds like Pees is up to the challenge.
What are your thoughts on new DC Dean Pees and his plans for a “flexible” and “multiple” defense in Atlanta?