It’s hard to argue there is a more important coaching assistant in the NFL than offensive coordinator. The OC often calls plays, and after all, it’s awfully hard to win in modern football without scoring points.
But for the first time in nearly half a decade, the Atlanta Falcons will have an offensive-minded head coach in Arthur Smith. More than likely, Smith will be calling plays or, at the very least, have a major impact on the offensive game plan and philosophy.
With this new coaching structure with the Falcons, the defensive coordinator will probably become the most important assistant coach on the staff, and the Falcons made a slam dunk hire in adding the very experienced and versatile Dean Pees to the role.
A little more than a year ago, Pees left football for retirement, but the allure of coaching with Smith again pushed Pees off the couch. Smith’s defense will be better for it.
Under Dan Quinn, the Falcons attempted to become Seattle South and recreate the ‘Legion of Boom.’ It wasn’t necessarily a bad strategy. When Quinn became head coach, the Seahawks had been a top 10 defense for four straight years, including No. 1 twice, and back-to-back NFC Champions.
But Seattle’s defensive success during that era was more the result of its playmakers than scheme. The Seahawks relied on a plethora of All-Pros such as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor to play a deep zone scheme to shut down opposing passing attacks. That allowed defensive linemen such as Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin to become stars upfront while pressuring he quarterback. Linebacker Bobby Wagner became an All-Pro too.
A similar formula worked for the Falcons in 2016. Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones brought speed just like those Seattle stars, and Vic Beasley became the NFL sack leader. But injures and underwhelming performances doomed the defense and, ultimately, Quinn, who failed to establish a different defensive philosophy that’d have more success.
Pees is not going to make that same mistake. He’s not going to pigeonhole the defense into one style or philosophy.
“Our talent and our roster will dictate what we’re going to do,” Pees said according to The Athletic. “Not me.”
One adjustment Quinn did try was calling defensive plays both in a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme. Pees says he will continue to do that, but Falcons fans can likely expect more blitzing as well. Under Pees in 2018 and 2019, the Tennessee Titans defense blitzed more than 27.0 percent of the time on opponents dropbacks. Comparatively, during Quinn’s final two seasons, the Falcons blitzed 23.0 percent on defensive passing plays.
Furthermore, in six years with Pees as defensive coordinator (2012-17), the Baltimore Ravens finished in the Top 12 in sack percentage four times. Pees’ defenses had success rushing the passer in New England as well, particularly in 2007 when the Patriots concluded the season second in sacks.
In addition to coaching under Bill Belichick in New England, Pees was defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Michigan State during the mid-1990s. That experience should bode well for the Falcons defense, which didn’t have a single starter older than 30 in 2020.
The Falcons are particularly young in the secondary with cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and AJ Terrell both under 25. Neal is entering his sixth season, but he still won’t turn 26 until July.
Pees’ philosophy sounds exactly what the young secondary needs — multiple defensive fronts to create confusion and a high-blitz percentage to cut down on the amount of time those young cornerbacks have to hold up in coverage.