Falcons: Breaking down defensive coordinator Dean Pees scheme

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It was announced yesterday that Dean Pees will come out of retirement to coach the Falcons’ defense. Fans shouldn’t be concerned about the notion he was retired for a reason, because it was his choice. He coached many impressive defenses in New England and Baltimore, so being retired wasn’t a production thing. Mike Vrabel actually sought him out to come back to Tennessee, but Pees chose Arthur Smith’s staff in Atlanta.

Dean Pees’ defenses have been notoriously hard to decipher for opposing quarterbacks. It is a very bend don’t break strategy that gives up the first 80 yards much easier than the final 20. Calling his scheme a 3-4 doesn’t really define what Pees’ defenses are because, during the 2018 season, the Titans dialed up a nickel personnel package on 73% of defensive snaps — ninth-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. 

Though I mentioned it as bend but don’t break philosophy, it isn’t that simple because he sometimes calls an ultra-aggressive game. One where the defense wants to attack, attack, and attack with a high volume of disguised blitzes. Pees likes to do this by having six or seven guys near the line of scrimmage and send five of them, which is called an odd front. He does this to ensure one-on-one’s across the board.

Pees then combines this crowded line of scrimmage with twists and stunts, which will work perfectly with Atlanta’s athletic inside linebackers. Imagine Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokon, Mykal Walker, Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler, Keanu Neal (officially advocating for a new contract), and Ricardo Allen all within five yards of the line of scrimmage moving around; when the ball is snapped, all three inside linebackers drop in coverage and the others come on a blitz… but on a delayed blitz comes Isaiah Oliver from 10 yards off the ball. Just take a look at this exotic look from 2019.

This defense isn’t without its’ faults; quick concepts and RPOs are blitz beaters. Execution has to be precise, and Pees has to be afforded the personnel to run his defense. I trust Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith’s assessment of the roster, which resulted in hiring Pees.

The Falcons will need to address safety, and Keanu Neal brought back on an incentive-based contract would be smart. He fits into this scheme and could play in a hybrid linebacker role, but Pees does prefer his safeties to be able to drop deep which Neal isn’t able to do. With that said, Kenny Vaccaro is nothing short of a liability in coverage, and he thrived in Tennessee; so, I would still say Neal should return to Atlanta.

I would definitely advocate for Darqueze Dennard to be brought back as well… over Neal if I had to choose. Dennard would absolutely thrive in a Logan Ryan-type role and has the ability to drop deep into coverage.

The Falcons already have three of the most athletic linebackers in the league. They will be fast at the second level no matter who the safeties are. The below quote is from an article two summers ago describing the Titans’ “switching” defense.

Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are both big and physical enough to play in the box or blitz while also having the range and cover chops to play deep or man up on athletic tight ends..

The Titans regular nickel, Logan Ryan, brings a safety’s skill set to the position. He’s an outstanding tackler and run defender along with being excellent as a blitzer.

When you get to the linebackers, the story is very similar. The Titans feature a set of backers ranging from 5’-11” to 6’-2” and between 225 and 233 pounds. It’s a group that’s built on speed and athleticism over size and power. Jayon Brown is among the game’s best coverage linebackers and makes the Titans defense incredibly flexible when he’s in the game. Jayon Brown is one of several versatile defenders the Titans have added in recent seasons.

Rashaan Evans, the Titans 2018 first round pick, brings a level of flexibility as well. He can be a run-thumping inside linebacker on one play and then an edge rusher the next. Evans is unique as a 232-pound linebacker who plays with the power of a much larger player.

More important than safety, though, is the edge. Expect Dante Fowler to be back, and the Falcons to draft and sign multiple edge rushers this offseason. This area must be fixed for Pees’ defense to be successful. Falcons fans will be excited to see some of these Baltimore or Pittsburgh-type exotic blitzes. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to see what crazy ass shit Dean Pees decides to throw out there.

Photo: Robert E. Klein/Icon Sportswire

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