Dean Pees & the Ravens D Pt. 1
Dean Pees has been the focus of much fan animosity over the past couple of seasons. Whether or not he is deserving of so much scrutiny is a matter that can be debated, but it is certainly true that the defense has been a major reason for the team’s recent shortcomings. In this two part article, I will provide a brief summary of the Ravens’ defense under Pees as defensive coordinator and demonstrate how the Pees-led defense is designed to work by examining scheme and personnel usage. In the second part, I will take a closer look at what adjustments Pees has been forced to make due to injury, the results of these adjustments, how keeping Pees as Defensive Coordinator may influence personnel decisions, and what to expect in 2016 and beyond.
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Pees took over as Defensive Coordinator in 2012 after Chuck Pagano left to become Head Coach in Indianapolis after serving as the Ravens Linebackers coach from 2010-2011. Pees was previously the Defensive Coordinator in New England from 2006-2009, and he has been a defensive coach in college or NFL for over 35 years. He took over a unit that had a very strong 2011, ranking 1st in defensive DVOA under Pagano. (DVOA is an opponent-adjusted measure of play by play success compared to NFL average developed by Football Outsiders. You can read more about DVOA here.) The 2012 season obviously ended on a high note in spite of a defense that struggled throughout the season, finishing 19th in DVOA. On the surface this looks quite poor, but it was also a defense that was riddled with injuries. (More on the injuries in 2012 and beyond in part 2.)
In 2013, the defense rebounded while remaining largely healthy to finish 7th best in DVOA, but offensive woes hindered the team’s success. In 2014, the injury bug came back in a big way, but the unit still finished 8th in DVOA largely due to a ferocious pass-rush led by Elvis Dumervil, Pernell McPhee, and Terrell Suggs. That leads us to this past season, where once again injuries took their toll with Suggs going down in week 1 and Jimmy Smith never truly regaining his form as a top CB. The defense finished 20th in DVOA.
You’ve probably heard or come to the conclusion on your own, that Pees’ style of defense is “bend but don’t break” and that it lacks an aggressive mentality. In many ways, this analysis is accurate, but I question the negative connotation these labels tend to illicit. To better illuminate what Pees’ defense aims to accomplish, I am going to break down a series of plays from the week 3 game vs Cincinnati.
At its base, Pees is trying to take away the run, put teams in 3rd and medium-long, and minimize big plays. The defensive front mostly adheres to 2-gap principles, meaning each of the down lineman are responsible for rushing lanes or “gaps” to either side of them. Linebackers or safeties are then tasked to fill the gaps. This puts a lot of responsibility on the DL and requires stout players that won’t give ground when head up over an offensive lineman.
Against the pass, the OLBs are tasked with providing the bulk of the pass-rush. In sub-packages, one of the big DTs or DEs comes off the field and is replaced by a DB. OLBs effectively become pass-rushing DEs and the 3-4 DEs move to the interior and rush as DTs. One of the drawbacks to having big, run-stuffing DEs and DTs is that these players often struggle to produce much of a pass-rush, which puts even more of the pass-rush burden on the OLBs. This is why we have seen players like McPhee and Za’Darius Smith used as interior pass-rushers. Here, on 3rd &6, the Ravens walk up the ILBs to the LOS to show blitz, but drop them off into shallow zones once the ball is snapped, leaving a 4 man rush.
In the secondary, Pees tends to favor zone schemes behind the 4 man rush, but there is a good amount of man coverage implemented as well. Dropping 7 into coverage has many benefits, especially when the CBs struggle to hold up in man coverage. More of the field can be taken away by defenders in both deep and short zones. Pees tends to vary his coverages based on the opponent, and in this game against the Bengals, he played mostly Cover 3 and man to man with some Cover 4 mixed in as well.
The problem with playing lots of zone is that there are always holes that can be exploited, and if there are any mistakes or miscommunications on the backend these holes become glaring. Furthermore, if the 4 man rush is not able to pressure the QB, it often becomes a simple game of pitch and catch once a receiver finds a void in coverage. On this same play, the Bengals run a 3 man route that probably should have easily been covered if not for a slip by the CB Rashaan Melvin (arrow). The front 4 does not stand much of a chance against 7 blockers, with Dumervil getting double teamed and Courtney Upshaw unable to beat the TE off the edge. Smith and Timmy Jernigan run a simple stunt on the interior, and while Jernigan eventually gets a one on one and pushes his blocker back into the pocket, Andy Dalton has plenty of time to find a wide open Marvin Jones for a big gain. In reality, it was a poor throw, but Melvin was so far out of position the catch was easy to make for Jones.
On the very next play we see a good example of press-man coverage. I said it is a good example because it shows how effective it can be if everyone executes their job properly, but it also shows how one player making a mistake becomes a huge liability. The outcome of the play is an incomplete pass because Dalton overshoots Mohamed Sanu in the slot, but both outside receivers beat the Ravens CBs handedly. At the top of the screen Melvin (arrow) once again falls down leaving Jones wide open, and at the bottom of the screen A.J. Green has a step on Smith and is also quite open. Fortunately, Will Hill does a much better job taking away Tyler Eifert and Webb has decent coverage in the slot on Sanu.
I’ve talked a good deal about Pees’ reliance on the 4 man rush, but he’s not afraid to dial up blitzes when the situation calls for it. On this 2nd and long in the 2nd quarter, Pees shows 6 rushers, but only brings 5 defenders after the QB in what is essentially a zone blitz in front of a Cover 3 look, dropping Dumervil into coverage and bringing an overload of Daryl Smith and Hill through the B gap. This is a very well designed pressure package as 4 offensive lineman to the left block 2 Ravens down lineman, leaving Hill unblocked behind Smith to notch the sack.
This negative play allowed Pees to run a conservative Cover 4 zone on the next play, where a DE/DT stunt between Upshaw and Za’Darius Smith forces Dalton into a rushed incomplete checkdown to the RB Giovani Bernard.
So what does this brief snapshot of the Ravens’ defense under Pees show us? I believe there are a few lessons that can be learned from a deeper understanding of the schemes that Pees uses, and in part 2, I hope to shed some light on why the injuries in 2012 and 2015 had such a large effect on the overall performance of the Ravens’ defense. I will go into further detail regarding the adjustments that Pees made in both 2012 and 2015, and talk about what kind of players I would expect the Ravens to pursue in FA and the draft in 2016 to help rebuild a defensive unit that had a lot of struggles in 2015.
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studies cartilage development and cancer. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.