Dean Pees doesn’t care what the critics say. He’s not hearing all the noise about how his defense folded in the fourth quarter and cost the Atlanta Falcons the game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1.
That was the damning verdict of many who watched a unit that had rolled down the shutters against the Saints for the best part of three quarters go missing when it mattered most. The Falcons had largely succeeded keeping the Saints in check before the final period because of the pressure packages in coordinator Pees’ multiple schemes.
Those pressure concepts helped the team that finished with an NFL-low 18 sacks last season get to Jameis Winston four times on the opening day. Sadly, the Saints’ signal-caller had all the time he needed to hit clutch scoring throws to Michael Thomas, but Pees rejects the idea he called off the dogs and hid behind prevent defense en route to a 27-26 defeat.
Pees Has Blunt Response for Critics
To say Pees was blunt when dismissing his critics would be an understatement. The 73-year-old defensive play caller made his feelings clear, per ESPN’s Michael Rothstein:
Pees’ defiant words are supported by the data, according to Josh Kendall of The Athletic: “Atlanta blitzed on a higher percentage of dropbacks in the fourth quarter (35.7 percent) than it did in either the first (28.6 percent) or second quarters (12.5 percent), according to TruMedia. The Falcons blitzed 44.4 percent of the time in the third quarter. Their overall blitz percentage (36.1) was the seventh highest in the league this week.”
Those numbers fly in the faces of those who were adamant the Falcons went into passive mode with a 26-10 lead entering the fourth. Among the naysayers, Kevin Knight of SB Nation’s The Falcoholic chided Pees for becoming conservative late doors:
Knight maintained his overall opinion of the change in Atlanta’s defense even after a second look:
There were others who felt the same way, including Audacy’s Allen Strk, who identified “conservative play calling” as a key factor in the Falcons letting the lead slip.
Pees won’t want to admit if he became cautious with the game in the balance, but it’s just as plausible a talented Saints offense adjusted to what had worked for his defense earlier in the game.
Creative Pressures a Good Sign for Falcons’ Defense
It’s not palatable for Falcons fans to admit, but the Saints are loaded on offense. They field a powerful line in front of Winston, who gets to throw to wide receivers Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave, the 11th-overall pick in this year’s draft.
When it comes time to run the ball, the Saints can call on Alvin Kamara, Melvin Ingram and the versatile Taysom Hill. It’s a lot for any defense to cope with, so what Pees’ unit managed through three quarters bodes well for the rest of the season.
The best things the Falcons did was harass Winston, with Grady Jarrett, Lorenzo Carter, Mykal Walker and rookie edge-rusher Arnold Ebiketie accounting for those four sacks. It wasn’t just the sacks, though, with Pees devising creative ways to generate pressure, like this four-man rush highlighted by The Athletic’s Nate Tice:
Mugging players into the A-gaps sending blitzing defenders late and dropping unexpected players into coverage all contributed to keeping the Saints off guard. Yet, as effective as the gameplan Pees crafted proved to be, the Saints’ coaches weren’t just going to stand pat and let the pressure keep happening.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and line coach Doug Marrone made their adjustments and those tweaks eventually gave Winston the time he needed to find his playmakers in space. That’s how things worked on this completion to Thomas, per Tice:
The simple fact is Pees wasn’t at fault for the Falcons late collapse. He’s a wily and proven coordinator who represents the best reason to believe this defense will continue to improve.
Until then, it’s still a unit in transition after several changes this offseason. There are a host of new faces, including Carter, Ebiketie, middle linebacker Rashaan Evans and cornerback Casey Hayward.
Those players need time to make a difference, especially with more tough tests like the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2. Pees’ schemes will help, but the turnaround was never going to happen in one game.