OK not enough for Dean Pees’ Falcons defense: ‘We’ve got to be great’

Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees is optimistic his defense will be much improved this season. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees is optimistic his defense will be much improved this season. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons haven’t played great defense in a decade. Dean Pees couldn’t stop the bleeding in one season. He’d coordinated only one bad defense over 12 years in the NFL. Year 13 with the Falcons was, statistically, the worst of them all.

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No reasonable person can blame Pees for that. The Falcons were bad on defense the season before he got here. They were worse in 2022 after some key veterans were cut during the salary-cap purge. Still, the bottom line is Pees’ ledger now includes a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed and 30th in efficiency per Football Outsiders (adjusted for opponent and situation).

Pees says he’s optimistic that his defense will be better in Year 2. Every coach is optimistic this time of year, but Pees offered some tangible reasons for his outlook.

He said he’s putting in 100% of his scheme after installing only about 60% in 2021. The returning defensive players should have a better grasp of the defense. Some of the newcomers already have experience with it. Pees said the Falcons drafted players who learn quickly.

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There’s also the matter of changing attitudes. Pees said he had to “learn the team and the culture that is there” in Year 1, and he discovered that the Falcons weren’t a team that believed they should play great defense.

“We need to expect to win,” Pees said Thursday. “Not hope we play well. We need to expect to win. That’s what I’m used to and being around and the expectation.”

Pees was the Patriots coordinator for four seasons. All those teams were good on defense, and three went to the playoffs. The Patriots allowed only 17 points in the 2008 Super Bowl but lost to the Giants (they were done in by David Tyree’s famous helmet catch). Pees won the 2013 Super Bowl as Ravens coordinator. In his last job before joining the Falcons, Pees went to the 2019 AFC Championship game, where Patrick Mahomes was too much for the Titans.

Those teams could depend on their defense to win games. Pees said he wants the same for the Falcons.

“I don’t care if it’s on our shoulders,” Pees said. “Everybody says, ‘Well, it had to be stressful being the coordinator in Baltimore.’ Hell, no! I loved it. I expect people to want us to be good, and if we aren’t good, then I accept the criticism.

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“I don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, you played a nice game.’ I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear you played a great game. We need that. We need to not think that just playing OK is OK. It’s not OK. We’ve got to play great on defense.”

The Falcons haven’t done that since Mike Smith was head coach. They were very good to great on defense from 2010-12. The Falcons were 36-12 over those three seasons and advanced to the NFC Championship game in 2012. Then the Falcons began their transformation from a balanced outfit to one trying to win with great offense compensating for below-average to bad defense.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith lured Pees out of retirement to help reverse that trend. The Falcons were competent against the run last season, ranking 17th in yards per carry allowed. They were OK with limiting big plays: 13th in percentage of run plays for 10 or more yards and 19th in pass plays of 20-plus yards, per Sharp Football Analysis. The defense was bad at pretty much everything else, especially rushing the passer (last in pressure percentage).

Soon after Pees was hired, he said he would be aggressive with sending extra rushers at quarterbacks. He eventually abandoned that plan, mostly because the Falcons struggled to cover pass catchers. I can see the Falcons being better in coverage for 2022, so maybe Pees can scheme up pressure. If that doesn’t work, then the Falcons likely will be bad on defense again because they still don’t have a proven pass rusher up front.

Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot have added some defensive talent through the draft. They took safety Richie Grant in the second round of the 2021 draft. This year they used second-round picks on defensive end Arnold Ebiketie and linebacker Troy Andersen and took defensive end DeAngelo Malone in the third round. The Falcons also used a significant portion of their limited salary-cap space for this season to sign cornerback Casey Hayward and linebacker/edge rusher Lorenzo Carter.

Pees said the roster turnover after last season is overstated because all teams lose players. Plus, the Falcons have some key guys back. Pees cited defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, linebacker Adetokunbo Ogundeji and safeties Jaylinn Hawkins and Grant. (Pees didn’t mention veteran linebacker Deion Jones, whose play fell off over the past two seasons.)

“There’s enough guys in there who have had one year of it that we can kind of take it (further),” Pees said.

Two new faces on defense have experience with Pees’ scheme. Linebackers Rashaan Evans played under Pees for two seasons in Tennessee. Carter played two seasons for ex-Giants coordinator Patrick Graham, who was a defensive assistant under Pees in New England.

“He loves effort; he loves physicality,” Evans said of Pees. “That’s kind of the foundation of everything.”

The Falcons won’t get physical until they put on the pads for training camp. Pees said the focus now is teaching the scheme and “experimenting” with players at different positions. The plan is to be finished with that by training camp because that’s when the priority shifts to getting ready for the season.

Eventually we’ll find out if the Falcons are good on defense. Pees said he’s not yet sure how many of his players expect that.

“I hope all of them,” he said. “I will tell you after the season.”

What’s clear is that the Falcons “didn’t have enough” defensive players who expected to be great in 2021, Pees said.

“That’s the truth,” he said. “Hopefully we have them all (believing) this year. The attitude guys have had in camp has been great. I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”