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Dean Pees says the Falcons need to build toward ‘being great on defense, not just okay’

In an interesting radio interview, Pees illuminates what he expects from the defense here and talks growing expectations.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 2021 season had its defensive highlights, from A.J. Terrell’s emergence to Foye Oluokun’s clutch turnovers to Marlon Davidson’s immediately legendary pick six off of Tom Brady. What it didn’t have was anything approaching consistent greatness, and the lack of an effective pass rush and an abundance of missed opportunities were extremely frustrating for Falcons fans.

As you might imagine, it sounds like it was also extremely frustrating for Dean Pees. The 2021 Falcons defense was the worst-ranked unit of his coaching career in nearly any metric you can think of, and the pass rush might have been the least productive pass rush we’ve seen in Atlanta, which is saying something. When he went to the mat for that defense as he did in response to comments about an “ugly win” against the Giants, the defense followed a scrappy effort up with a major dud against Washington. The lack of consistency for a coach who is used to presiding over good-to-great defenses absolutely had to rankle, and one of the big questions of the offseason concerns how that defense is going to improve.

We’re months away from finding that out in any meaningful way, but the expectation is clearly that improvement is coming. In an interview with Hugh Douglas and John Fricke on 92.9 The Game Friday morning, Pees was asked by Fricke what a “Dean Pees defense” would look like going forward and offered quite a few interesting comments worth breaking out here. Pees was straightforward about what disappointed him a year ago, clear that expectations for the defense are overdue for a change, and hinted that Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins are headed for expanded roles at safety in 2022.

2021 letdowns

Pees told Douglas and Fricke that one of the things he always takes pride in that his defenses have tended to rank well and play well on third downs and in the red zone, but that those were two of the defense’s worst areas in 2021.

One of his core focuses for the “Dean Pees defense” to improve that, clearly, is going to be on enhancing the pass rush. Pees saw the same thing we did, which was not just a lack of sacks but a lack of pressure, one that made quarterbacks from Jalen Hurts to Tim Boyle look terrific. That will take a team effort, but Pees made it clear players will need to win their matchups.

“You’re not going to devise a scheme that’s always gonna have a free runner. If you get one-on-one with a back with a linebacker, that should be a win more than a loss for us, and it wasn’t for us last year,” he said.

“We want to be a pressure team.”

There was also clearly a level of frustration with players sometimes freelancing or getting antsy to make a big play, with Pees mentioning plays against Philadelphia and Buffalo where players knew the assignment but didn’t necessarily execute on it.

Pees noted that he felt the defense played conservatively at times to avoid giving up the big play—the Falcons famously became the only team in 25-plus years not to surrender a play of over 40 years in a season—but that they hemorrhaged yards underneath because they were not aggressive enough in man coverage and tight coverage. On third down and in the red zone, obviously, the lack of pressure made the task tougher in coverage.

Larger roles for Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins?

There’s a lot of potential for change ahead, with the draft around the corner and minicamp, OTAs, training camp and preseason still in the offing, but it sounds fair to expect that Grant and Hawkins will go into 2022 with a chance to start at safety.

“I think we got two good young safeties who are going to get their opportunity now this year,” Pees said.

Pees also mentioned that he thought parts of 2021 were “unfair” to Grant, who he said is a safety but was pressed into action at nickel at times in 2021 owing to the Isaiah Oliver injury. The strong indication seems to be that last year’s second round pick is going to step into a much larger role at safety, and given my hopes that he’ll have a breakout second season, that’s music to my ears.

Pees said he’s feeling good about the secondary more generally—he raved about A.J. Terrell—and with the additions of Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe and Teez Tabor, that there’s depth at safety for the team to draw on.

Expectations for 2022 and beyond

As mentioned above, getting more pressure and being more aggressive are going to be core focuses going forward for Pees and this defense. Getting there will likely hinge on added experience and expectations.

The NFL Draft isn’t here yet, so there’s hopefully more defensive improvement in the offing. Going beyond personnel additions, Pees noted that the team “put a lot” on defenders last year and will install the rest in 2022, and it’s clear that he expects improvement in the team’s second year with added familiarity and experience.

“I think we’re gonna improve everywhere,” Pees said, and obviously from his earlier comments you can probably bet the pass rush will be a major focus.

Hugh Douglas commented later on in the show that the addition of Rashaan Evans could be helpful in that regard, because Evans is familiar with Pees’ defense and his preferred culture.

Beyond the personnel changes and coaching, though, Pees talked about building a culture and expectation for a Falcons defense that isn’t content to be so-so or even just good. Pees said the change starts with and will continue with the players, noting that the Ravens have consistently fielded great defenses despite changing out defensive coordinators, including Pees himself.

“We gotta quit this crap of sitting around and thinking that just doing this is fine, being good is okay. It’s not. The expectation’s gotta grow. It’s players. There have been a lot of defensive coordinators at Baltimore, and the defense is still good...the truth of it is, when people walk in the building there, they expect on defense to be tough and be good. That’s what we gotta do here,” he said.

That shift likely won’t happen overnight, and obviously adding more talent is a key ingredient in upgrading this defense from lackluster to tremendous. Getting a level of swagger and the play to back it up sounds like it will be a priority in 2022 regardless, and any major steps in that direction will be welcome for a fanbase that has been waiting forever for the next great Falcons D.

“We gotta build a mental attitude here, that the expectation is to be great on defense, not just okay. It’s been that way for way too long, I’m sick of it, and we’re all sick of it, and we gotta change that,” Pees said.