Falcons’ Dean Pees did not like playing musical chairs on defense

FLOWERY BRANCH – With 13 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list at one point and a key injury last week, Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees had to play musical chairs on defense against Buffalo.

The Falcons opened in 4-3 season after playing 3-4 for most of the season, had a rookie Darren Hall start at right cornerback for Fabian Moreau, who was out with ribs and Kendall Sheffield, who hadn’t played a snap was in the lineup in the nickel defense.

Pees and the Falcons (7-9) are set to face the Saints (8-8) at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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“Anytime you’ve got to make all those dadgum changes, whether it be injury or COVID, or whatever it was, you know, we struggled at some spots,” Pees said.

Pees hates matching up cornerbacks on specific receivers, but he had A.J. Terrell follow around Stefon Diggs against the Bills. That worked out fine, but it led to other problems.

“That’s not always the easiest thing to do,” Pees said. “We struggled with some things. We had some guys get lined up late. We had an uncommonly number of missed tackles, which killed us in the run game with 15 of them. And we haven’t had 15 in three games, usually.”

In addition to the missed tackles, there were 11 missed assignments.

“We were trying to change some things around to try to get the best matchups we could,” Pees said. “But when you try to do that, it’s not the norm. It’s not what you practiced all year. You try to do it. Thinking it’s going to give you the best chance, but I don’t think it necessarily did.”

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The Falcons started off fine. Duron Harmon and Terrell had interceptions that led to a 15-14 halftime lead. Linebacker Foye Oluokun picked off Bills quarterback Josh Allen again at the start the third quarter to give the offense a chance to make it a two-score lead.

“They didn’t hurt us in the passing game,” Pees noted as Allen finished with a career-low 17 passer rating. “We got picks. We did some good things there.”

But the Bills cranked up their rushing attacks and finished with 233 yards and four rushing touchdowns.

“It really hurt us in the running game,” Pees said. “We ended up with some bad run-force situations on the edge. That contributed to sometimes the guys being out of position. Gave them bad angles. Made them miss tackles. It was just wasn’t. ... I said in the past, I don’t like to do, and I wished I hadn’t done it even in that one.”

Terrell held up against Diggs, who was All-Pro last season. He caught only five of nine targets for 51 yards.

“Matching up A.J. on Diggs wasn’t a problem. ... I never felt like that was ever a problem,” Pees said. “I mean, he caught a couple.”

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In addition to Hall and Sheffield playing extensively, Shawn Williams was playing free safety, with Jaylinn Hawkins on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Williams is a veteran, but hadn’t played much this season for the Falcons.

“A lot of new guys,” Pees said. “Even though we thought it was maybe the best way to do it, in retrospect, I don’t know if it was.”

Pees said players, in the new alignments and positions, were getting lined up late

“Meanwhile, the ball is being snapped and running around the edge, and we don’t have anybody there to, to help the defensive end,” Pees said. “You know, whenever you try to help somebody, you’re putting another load on somebody else.”

The Falcons couldn’t stop Allen in the run game. He finished with 81 yards and two rushing touchdowns. They’ll have a similar challenge from Saints running quarterback Taysom Hill on Sunday.

“That was the biggest emphasis going into the game was, take care of the quarterback, and we didn’t do it,” Pees said. “We did it in the passing game. We didn’t do it in the running game. We had chance to sack him on a third-and-8 to get off the field on the first score. We should at least hold them to a field goal if we didn’t miss the tackle.

“I was just disappointed in the running (defense). Disappointed in myself just thinking it through just saying I know better. I tried to do it, and it didn’t work very well.”

Moving forward, the Falcons will have two defensive priorities over the offseason.

“It’s not now learning the system,” Pees said. “It is now being able to have the ability to play man coverage and actually be able to rush the passer without it being a pressure. Those are the two things that have just got to get better next season.”

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