Falcons’ Dean Pees set to unleash 100% of the defense

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH – Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees plans to have his unit firing on all cylinders in its second season in the 3-4 alignment.

“I kind of know (that) the guys that are back kind of know what to expect,” Pees said. “You know what we’re really looking for. Last year, I’d say we put in, at the end of the year, maybe 60% of the defense that we really want to run. This year, it’s going to be 100%.”

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

The Falcons’ numbers last season put them in the bottom half of the NFL in all key defensive categories. They gave up 364.4 yards per game (26 of 32 teams in the league), 131.9 yards rushing (27th), 232.5 yards passing (18th) and 27 points per game (T-30th), and they recorded a sack on 3.12% of their opponents’ drop-backs (32nd).

“I just didn’t feel like there were some things last year that we were probably going to be able to digest and be able to do,” Pees said. “The good thing is that we didn’t give up a lot of big plays last year. We did a great job of keeping the ball inside in the perimeter and not giving up big plays.”

The Falcons gave up 51 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranked 15th in the league, and didn’t give up any pass plays of more than 40 yards, which ranked No. 1 in league.

“Part of that was because we didn’t overload them,” Pees said. “Well, I think we’ve learned enough now that we can kind of not overload them, but we can add a lot more to it to be a little more aggressive than maybe we were last year.”

With the players more comfortable in the system, the Falcons must first figure out how to stop the run and then muster a pass rush.

The Falcons are looking for an anchor at nose tackle from among Vincent Taylor, Eddie Goldman and Anthony Rush.

The Falcons also need either Taquon Graham or Marlon Davidson to step forward at the defensive end spot opposite of Grady Jarrett.

“Anytime that you have a player of Grady’s caliber, it makes you excited as a coach more than as a player, Grady is a great person,” defensive line coach Gary Emanuel said. “Great teammate. He’s guy who’s fun to be around and is a student of the game. ... To work with Grady is exciting.”

Davidson is set to enter his third season, and Graham played 310 defensive snaps (36%) as a rookie last season. Jarrett has been helping to bring them along.

“Whenever you have a veteran in the (meeting) room who has the experience and reputation that Grady has earned, they always are going to try to find out how he goes about his daily routine, his offseason activities and all of the different stuff,” Emanuel said.

The Falcons are hoping that Jarrett, who signed a three-year extension this offseason, can become even more disruptive in the 3-4.

“Well, he’s like everybody else, you want to work on your craft individually,” Emanuel said. “Work on fine-tuning your technique, hand placement and your footwork. ... Whenever we get to that point where we can’t improve, we should probably get out of the game.”

The Falcons added outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone over the offseason as they moved away from Dante Fowler and Steven Means, last season’s opening-game starters. Ade Ogundeji returns after playing 510 defensive snaps as a rookie.

The Falcons are high on Ebiketie.

“He’s twitchy and explosive,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “He’s got strength and length. He’s a guy that’s effort-filled and plays like a tough guy. …. The more time you spend around coach (Arthur) Smith, the more you know that he values that.”

Ebiketie had a strong offseason.

“He’s in the process right now of deciding what we’re going to be and how he’s going to fit in,” Monachino said. “He’s willing to do it all, and we’re going to keep pushing him that way.”

Malone, who’s from Cedar Grove High and played at Western Kentucky, also can carve out a role on the defense.

“DeAngelo is a football player at heart,” Monachino said. “You can tell how much a guy loves ball by how he plays on tape, and he loves football. You can tell because he plays with great effort and explosiveness. He plays like a leader.”

Malone won with a lot of different one-on-one pass-rush moves at Western Kentucky. He also played strong when dropping into coverage and can blitz off the edge.

“He did a variety of things,” Monachino said. “That doesn’t usually happen with college football players. Usually, they’re kind of pigeon-holed into a spot and that’s where they play, but this kid did it all Western Kentucky.”

The Falcons signed veteran inside linebacker Rashaan Evans in free agency, and he played alongside Mykal Walker with the first-team defense over the offseason. Deion Jones was out with a shoulder injury over the offseason.

The Falcons also drafted rookie Troy Andersen in the second round. He played running back and quarterback at Montana State before settling at linebacker for his final two seasons there.

“We just need him to learn how to play linebacker,” Pees said. “I don’t need him to know how to play quarterback anymore.”

Andersen’s time on offense could help his transition.

“He’s now seeing the other side of it and kind of knows what the quarterback is looking at,” Pees said. “So‚ when you talk to him, in terms of certain things about defense, he can understand it, ‘Yeah, that’s how a quarterback sees it.’”

A.J. Terrell is set at left cornerback, and the Falcons signed veteran Casey Hayward, who’ll turn 33 on Sept. 9, to man the other side.

Isaiah Oliver is coming back from knee surgery and will battle several candidates, including Darren Hall, for his old nickel-back position. Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant will compete to earn the safety positions.

“They are trying to get better with the basics,” assistant defensive backs coach Nick Perry said. “So, it’s always going to about situational football. Everything from code words, to ball skills, to moving around, to tackling. So, these guys are pretty hungry. They are trying to get better, faster.”

While the team installs 100% of the defense, teaching will be key.

“It’s also about learning,” Pees said. “How fast can they learn? How do they learn? ... It’s like being a teacher. Everybody doesn’t learn the same way. So you’re kind of trying to take those guys from what you learned about when we were scouting. How does this guy learn what’s the best way to teach?”

The Falcons moved players around over the offseason.

“You don’t want to be experimenting that much in training camp,” Pees said. “You want to start getting ready for the season.”

Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Defensive line

Part 2: Linebackers

Part 3: Secondary

Part 4: Special teams

Part 5: Wide receivers/ tight end

Part 6: Offensive line

Part 7: Running backs

Part 8: Quarterback

The AJC’s projected depth chart

OFFENSE

WR – Bryan Edwards, Cordarrelle Patterson, Frank Darby, Cameron Batson, KhaDarel Hodge, Stanley Berryhill

TE – Kyle Pitts, Brayden Lenius, Tucker Fisk

LT – Jake Matthews, Rick Leonard, Tyler Vrabel, Leroy Watson

LG – Jalen Mayfield, Elijah Wilkinson, Colby Gossett, Justin Shaffer

C – Drew Dalman or Matt Hennessy, Jonotthan Harrison

RG – Chris Lindstrom, Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

TE – Anthony Firkser, Parker Hesse, John Raine, John FitzPatrick

WR – Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus, Geronimo Allison, Auden Tate, Damiere Byrd, Jared Bernhardt, Tyshaun James

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Damien Williams, Qadree Ollison, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams, Tyler Allgeier

FB – Keith Smith

QB – Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, Feleipe Franks

DEFENSE

DE – Grady Jarrett, Marlon Davidson, Jalen Dalton

NT – Vincent Taylor, Anthony Rush, Eddie Goldman, Timothy Horne

DE – Ta’Quon Graham, Nick Thurman, Bryce Rodgers, Derrick Tangelo

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, Jordan Brailford, Arnold Ebiketie

ILB – Deion Jones, Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Dorian Etheridge, Nick Kwiatkoski, Nathan Landman

OLB – Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Quinton Bell, Rashad Smith, DeAngelo Malone, Kuony Deng

LCB – A.J. Terrell, Darren Hall, Mike Ford, Corey Ballentine, Cornell Armstrong, Lafayette Pitts

FS (Left) – Jaylinn Hawkins, Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe

SS (Right) – Richie Grant, Teez Tabor, Tre Webb

RCB – Casey Hayward, Isaiah Oliver, Dee Alford, Matt Hankins

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P – Bradley Pinion, Seth Vernon

LS – Liam McCullough

H – Bradley Pinion, Desmond Ridder

PR – Avery Williams, Cameron Baston

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson, Avery Williams, Cameron Batson

The Bow Tie Chronicles