Falcons’ Dean Pees going with bigger linebackers in defensive overhaul

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

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

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees made his plea for a change of culture.

He also will direct a massive change of personnel in his second year with the Falcons, who are set to open the season with nine new defensive starters when they face the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

He has new players up front, a totally revamped – and bigger – linebacker corps and two young safeties to hold things together on the back end of the defense.

The first unit played a drive in the opener against Detroit and gave up a touchdown as it had organizational issues. They blew a coverage and made a mental error before leaving.

“The good thing was we got two turnovers that led to 10 points for our offense,” Pees said. “The bad thing is we had three penalties that led to 10 points for their offense.”

The Falcons know they need to improve their pass rush, which ranked last in the NFL with 18 sacks last season.

“We had a sack down there,” Pees said of the game versus the Lions. “We were going to make them kick a field goal, we get hands to the face, and they end up scoring a touchdown – that’s a four-point swing.”

The next week, against the Jets, the starters played against backup quarterback Mike White and most of the Jets backups for 13 snaps and forced two punts. The starters didn’t play in the exhibition finale against Jacksonville.

Pees didn’t see a lot of missed tackles.

The Falcons are going to count on third-year linebacker Mykal Walker to call the signals.

“Mentally, Mykal Walker is top-shelf,” Pees said. “He really is a smart, football smart, understands, communicates. I have no qualms whatsoever about him understanding this defense.”

Last season, Foye Oluokun was the signal-caller.

Walker, 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, and Rashaan Evans (6-2, 232) are bigger than last year’s starters Oluokun (6-2, 215) and Deion Jones (6-2, 227).

“Understanding the position sometimes is still a little bit of a work in progress, but he’s busting his butt, and he’s doing well,” Pees said of Walker, who’ll be a first-time starter. “Communication-wise, Mykal is a great communicator in knowing the defense.”

The bigger linebackers are by design to help the run defense, which allowed 131.9 yards per game (27th in the league).

Walker impressed Pees during the walk-throughs last season. Pees felt Walker was communicating with the backups better than the starters were communicating.

“He was always on top of it, was into it,” Pees said.

Another new key starter will be defensive end Ta’Quon Graham. The Falcons hope he can provide some interior pass rush opposite of Grady Jarrett.

“He really showed up,” Pees said of Graham’s play against Detroit. “I mean, he was very noticeable making plays. I’d say he’s made a big jump.”

The Falcons know that depth could be an issue.

“You don’t want to lose anybody right now because then there definitely is a drop-off at some point in time on the line, but right now, if we can stay healthy, I feel good about these guys,” Pees said. “I feel like there are some guys that can rotate in there and play different roles and also give guys breaks and not somebody have to play 65-70 snaps in a game. Hope we can keep that going.”

Graham is planning to follow Jarrett’s lead.

“Working with Grady, he challenges me like a big brother would,” Graham said. “Expecting me to see certain things or make certain plays. Holding me to a pretty high standard and also coaching me through some things, things I need to see. Saying I can do this better. Pulling me to the side after film. Just telling me certain things and also giving me confidence as well.”

Pees, in his plea for a change of culture, noted that the Falcons have finished in the top half in the league – 16th or higher – only five times over the past 20 seasons in yards allowed. The Falcons finished ninth in 2017, 16th in 2015, 12th in 2011, 16th in 2010 and 14th in 2004.

Last season, Pees’ first with the Falcons, the defense finished 26th in yards allowed.

“We’ve got to take charge, and it (isn’t) going to be anybody else to do it but us,” Pees said.

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