Who Could Be an Upgrade at Defensive Coordinator?
Everyone wants someone to be held accountable when a team severely under-performs like the Ravens have, going from Super Bowl contender, to in the running for the number one overall pick in next year’s draft. Many folks point the finger at the coaching staff. Specifically, the defensive side of the ball that has squandered numerous fourth quarter leads this season. We’re talking about Dean Pees. He has been running the Ravens defense since 2012, after being promoted from linebacker’s coach after two seasons. The Ravens defense has never been less feared in it storied history.
Firing the coaches always seems to be to answer, but when you ask the follow up question, “who do you replace him with?”, the answers are not as easy to come by. The answer is not always a simple one either.
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For Dean Pees to be fired, it would ultimately mean John Harbaugh would have to be the one to cut ties with him. Here’s a fun fact. Dean Pees was one of John Harbaugh’s coaches when Harbs played defensive back at Miami, Ohio, way back in the early 1980’s. There is a personal connection there. I doubt Harbaugh willingly fires one of his first mentors of the game. It’s going to have to come from the top. Ravens owner, Steve Bisciotti, has proclaimed that he isn’t a football guy. That he leaves those decisions up to the football people, but he feels the need to step in if things get out of hand. For example, Had the Ravens not improved in 2014 after a poor 8-8 showing in 2013, he would have made some changes.
One year plus seems to be the length of the leash given by Bisciotti. That is after an 8-8 season though, and one year removed from winning the title. How much leash do you give a team that has won two games in half the season?
Let’s not forget that Bisciotti gave Brian Billick his full endorsement during the latter portion of a bad 2007 season…until that team lost to an 0-14 Miami Dolphins team in overtime. The owner quickly vetoed his own endorsement, and the next week was Billick’s last game as head coach here in Baltimore, and by his own choice, in the NFL.
It’s not uncommon for Bisciotti to make a rash decision if his gut tells him to. He’s a man that has made a living, and millions upon millions of dollars, making decisions based on his instincts. John Harbaugh for head coach is a prime example. Hiring a special teams guy for head coach is highly unorthodox. But it was instinctual and it worked out great.
In 2012, it was reported that Bisciotti stepped in and told Harbaugh he wanted offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, gone before the Washington Redskins game that ultimately did him in. Harbaugh reportedly lobbied for another chance for his friend, and got it. But the game plan for that Redskins game was to attack a very weak passing defense. Cameron, as stubborn as he was, aborted that plan and ran the ball all day long, as Flacco attempted just 21 passes. The Redskins would make a late game rally to win, and Harbaugh knew it then too that he had to go. Cameron feeling like the smartest guy in the room, and circumventing the game plan the other coaches help put together, would not bode well for a team whose goal was the Super Bowl.
This was a rumor that Harbaugh never dispelled. When questioned about Bisciotti’s involvement, he said, “I’m not getting into any of that. We do a great job in this organization of communicating and talking, and we have great leadership here, all across the board, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
The ideal time to let a coach go is during the bye week to give extra time for the interim guy to get acclimated to the new role. The Ravens are entering that bye week at 2-6 and fighting for the #1 overall pick in the draft. The Ravens defense ranks near the bottom in yards per game (25th), passing yards per game (29th), and points per game allowed (25th). They rank 18th in DVOA (prior to the Chargers game). Those are some unacceptable numbers for a defense starring the following:
DT Brandon Williams – Likely All-Pro at his position
DE Timmy Jernigan – Filled in for admirably for Haolti Ngata as a rookie
OLB Elvis Dumervil – Still one of the best pass rushers in the game
MLB C.J. Mosley – First Ravens rookie to be elected to the Pro-Bowl, and a top interior pass rusher
CB Jimmy Smith – One of the league’s top CBs before injury ended his 2014 season
S Will Hill – One of the league’s top safeties
If playing at their full potential, that is easily six Pro Bowl worthy players on the defense alone. But they can’t seem to kick it in gear this year. The loss of Terrell Suggs couldn’t have effected all of these guys to the point that they become below league average (to put it nicely) at best (aside from Williams who is proving to be the best at his position). That’s where the chicken or the egg argument comes in. Is it players not being as good as advertised, or is it the coordinator not getting the most of his talent, not setting them up for success? Dean Pees was calling out Jimmy Smith last week for not being aggressive enough. Not playing close enough to the line, giving too much of a cushion. But I wonder if Pees realizes that his job is to call the defense. To determine how aggressive his guys need to be by calling press or off coverage, man or zone. Blitz or three man rush. Maybe if he didn’t watch the game from the comfort of the booth he could make adjustments on the spot. “Move up Jimmy,” he could yell from the sideline, but not the booth. I digress.
The mark of a good coordinator is a guy that is often courted for head coaching jobs. At least, in the conversation, maybe interviews a few places. Dean Pees is never in those conversations. To be fair, Pees is a player’s coach. Players have the utmost respect for him as a mentor. Unfortunately, being a nice guy doesn’t keep the opposition out of the endzone.
If the Ravens brass doesn’t think that Dean Pees is the man to keep leading the defense into the coming years, then the earlier the better to make a change. If Harbaugh won’t fire someone so close to him, will Bisciotti step in and force his hand after posting an embarrassing 2-6 record?
I’ll answer that second part of that question I posed earlier. Who could replace Pees if the team decides to go that direction. Here are some names to ponder.
Clarence Brooks. Defensive line – Brooks is the longest tenured of the Ravens assistant coaches, in his 11th year with the team. “CB” is an “in your face” type of coach with a lot of energy, even at 64 years old. He was one of six coaches that was retained when John Harbaugh took over in 2008. Defensive line has never been a problem under Brooks’ watch, developing guys like Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger, and now appearing to put together one of the deepest D-Line units in the league with Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, and a rookie on the rise in Carl Davis.
Don Martindale. Linebackers – Martindale is definitely a Harbaugh guy. He was a coaching assistant with John at the University of Cincinnati from 1996-1998. He moved on to Western Kentucky where he coached under John’s father, Jack Harbaugh. In 2002, his defense led the Hilltoppers to an FCS Championship. After a stint with the Oakland Raiders, he spent two years in Denver, the second of which he was the defensive coordinator for the Broncos in 2011. In his lone season as a DC, Denver ranked in the bottom half of the league in most categories. Under his tutelage, the Ravens developed their first rookie Pro Bowler in C.J. Mosley. Daryl Smith has been a reliable, consummate veteran. He helped Dannell Ellerbe earn a lucrative free agent contract. But hasn’t been able to work any magic with second round bust Arthur Brown.
Juan Castillo – Castillo and Harbaugh have worked together for a long time. Castillo was an assistant for the Eagles for 18 years from 1995-2012, and then came to Baltimore. Though currently the offensive line coach, Castillo was defensive coordinator for the Eagles in 2011 and 2012. The 2011 squad led the league in sacks, and tackles for loss, and ranked in the top ten in yards and points allowed. He ran a 4-3 defense in Philly, but being in house, he should understand the nuances and the players he has. On the flip side, Castillo really has no business being on the coaching staff in any capacity. He had an awful time managing the O-line in 2013. With Kubiak one and done and taking his specific plans with him, the line appears to be, while not as bad as 2013, pretty poor. Maybe he is better suited on defense.
In my opinion, it should be Clarence Brooks with the interim tag and a shot to earn the job next year. If an unlikely move is made over the bye.
NFL Assistant Coaches
Louie Cioffi. Defensive backs, Tennessee Titans – Cioffi has been leading the Titans secondary for two seasons. They allow the second least amount of passing yards per game (195.2). He’s doing it without superstar talent, similar to how former Ravens DBs coach, Teryl Austin seemed to turn water into gold with other team’s castaways, like James Ihedigbo, Cary Williams and Corey Graham for example. Before Tennessee he spent a year in Cleveland, sending Joe Haden and T.J. Ward to their first Pro Bowls. Before that he spent two years in Arizona, sending Adrian Wilson and Patrick Peterson to Pro Bowls. When he joined the NFL in 1997 as a defensive assistant with the Bengals, he was the youngest full time assistant in the league at just 23 years old. Now at age 43, with 20 years in the league under him, he is the rare combination of seasoned NFL veteran and youthful energy. You have to think he’s ready to promote from positional assistant to running his own defense. He has a knack for improving the passing defense which is a giant need here in Baltimore. Tennessee runs a 3-4 defense. So he is familiar with the concept and the personnel necessary.
Mike Trgovac. Defensive line, Green Bay Packers – Trgovac was defensive coordinator for six seasons in Carolina, and managed the defense that ranked in the top ten in a number of categories, including a league high 42 takeaways during their Super Bowl run in 2005. Trgovac played college ball at Michigan, and was a graduate assistant under Bo Schembechler in 1984 and 1985. The same years that Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback. Cam Cameron was also a GA there during this time. We know how much the Harbaugh family adores Schembechler and his legacy. Anyone a part of it automatically earns credibility with them. Trgovac is in his second stint with Green Bay and has been there coaching the D-Lineman since 2009. Since Trgovac took over as defensive line coach in 2009, the Packers rank fifth in the NFL in sacks and are tied for sixth in the NFL in rushing TDs allowed. Green Bay has finished in the top 10 in the league in sacks in four of the last five seasons (2010, 2012-14). With 21 years in the NFL, maybe he is ready to get back to running his own defense. He is familiar with the 3-4, helped develop B.J. Raji into one of the games top nose tackles, and would have that here in Brandon Williams.
Sean McDermott. Defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers – McDermott and John Harbaugh go way back. Both men worked together on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia for nine seasons from 1999 through 2007. Harbs was hired in 98’. McDermott the next year. He had been promoted by Philly from scouting administrative director, to a defensive assistant and quality control, linebackers, secondary, and then defensive coordinator in 2009. He left Philly in 2011 for the same position with the Panthers that he currently holds, and has the Panthers defense ranked in the top ten in total defense each of the last three years. That is despite losing Greg Hardy for the majority of 2014 and to free agency this year. McDermott and Harbaugh go way back, but Panthers head coach Ron Rivera also worked with McDermott in Philly for five seasons (1999-2004). Maybe his seven seasons as a defensive coordinator make McDermott primed for a head coaching job, given the way his Panthers defense is playing this year. But maybe an old friend comes calling and…who knows. McDermott runs a 4-3 defense, which the Ravens don’t have the traditional personnel up front to handle. Combine that and his ties to Rivera make him a longshot, but a name worth mentioning, and someone Harbaugh should at least contact if the need arises.
From the college ranks
D.J. Durkin. Defensive coordinator, University of Michigan – Maybe little brother Jim can hook up big brother John with one of the best defensive minds in the college game right now. A college game where scoring and spread offenses are growing faster each year. Durkin spent five years (2010-14) as an assistant with the Florida Gators. The last two of those years were as defensive coordinator in which he finished eighth, and 15th in the nation in total defense. He’s in his first year at Michigan, and went on a five game run where his defense allowed 7, 7, 0, 0, 0 points. Durkin spent time with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford (2007-09) before taking the job at Florida. During his playing days, Durkin was a four-year starter as an edge rusher for Bowling Green.
Bob Shoop. Defensive coordinator, Penn State – Shoop played football, and graduated from Yale University, which should tell you how smart the man is. Shoop has followed James Franklin from Vanderbilt up to Penn State. While at Vanderbilt, he turned them into an unlikely defensive force, finishing in the top 25 in total defense for three straight seasons. Classes he has recruited are still dominating on defense in Nashville, even in his absence. In his first season at Penn State, Shoop led the Nittany Lions to number two in the nation in total defense, and number seven in points allowed. He got the attention of a highly touted SEC job at LSU who offered him their DC position, but he elected to stay at Penn State. Maybe the Pennsylvania born Shoop wants to stay somewhat local, and Baltimore could be a fit for him.
Jeremy Pruitt. Defensive coordinator, University of Georgia – Ozzie Newsome loves Alabama guys, right? Pruitt played two years of college ball for the Crimson Tide. Later went on to be the head coach at Alabama’s Hoover High School (featured on the television series “Two a Days”. He has flown up through the coaching ranks from high school coach, to defensive backs coach for two Alabama National Championship teams (2011-2012), to defensive coordinator for another national title at Florida State (2013) all in under a decade. At Florida State, his defense was first in points allowed and third in total defense. He is currently the DC for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in one season had turned them from fledgling, to a competitive defensive unit. They should continue to improve as he brings in his recruits. As fast as he flies through the ranks, NFL teams should come calling sooner rather than later.
Bud Foster. Defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech – Foster is Frank Beamer’s right hand man. He started working for him as an assistant at Murray State in 1981, and stuck with Beamer when he was hired by Virginia Tech in 1987. Foster became the full time defensive coordinator in 1993, and is regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in history. He won DC of the year after the Hokies won the 1999 National Championship with one of the nation’s top units. In 2001 his defense only returned three starters, yet they posted four shutouts, and ranked in the top eight in six different categories. In the last 15 years, his defense ranked in the top ten in both total defense, and scoring defense, nine times. With word coming out that Frank Beamer is ready to retire at seasons end, Foster could be in line for a new gig.
John Harbaugh is unlikely to ever fire his mentor and long-time friend, Dean Pees. If the owner, Steve Bisciotti, steps in and demands change, it wouldn’t be the first time. The upcoming bye week is the optimal time to make a change. Change is necessary sooner rather than later if you think Pees isn’t the guy to lead them into 2016.
In house you have Clarence Brooks, the longest tenured assistant, retained by Harbaugh when he was hired. Don Martindale goes way back with the Harbaugh family, but didn’t fare well in one stint as a DC. Juan Castillo is better suited on defense, and has worked with Harbaugh for over 18 years.
Around the league there is Louie Cioffi, who has been a top assistant for 20 years, and must be due to run a defense of his own. He specializes in defensive backs. Mike Trgovac worked for Bo Schembechler and has small ties to Jim Harbaugh, specializing in defensive line. Sean McDermott runs a top notch defense in Carolina, and worked with Harbaugh in Philly for many years.
In the college ranks, D.J. Durkin has worked with Jim Harbaugh for a number of years. Bob Shoop hails from Pennsylvania, location appears to be a priority. Jeremy Pruitt is an Alabama guy and is destine for a pro job in the near future, as fast as he has promoted through the system. Bud Foster might be the most respected defensive mind in the college game, and with Frank Beamer leaving Virginia Tech, Foster could be looking for a new gig, and wouldn’t have to relocate very far.
The Ravens defense has never been less respected in their history then they have been during Dean Pees’ tenure. One of these guys could make the Ravens a team that opponents fear playing once again.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]