For the coach who's been around the game as long as Dean Pees has, he knows how much the game has changed. His best course of action to combat said change?
"Evolve with it," Pees said in his first news conference since his hire.
The flexibility Pees has showcased as a defensive play caller has become a staple of his career. With the Falcons in 2021, that flexibility is important to a defense that has: 1. underperformed in recent years and 2. been pieced together this offseason.
To get this defense moving up the productive ladder, Pees has gotten into a flow of teaching these players defensive concepts rather than just their specific positional needs. So, what does this look like? Before practice on Thursday, Pees broke it down in detail using the cornerbacks as the primary example.
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Pees isn't in the business of throwing a cornerback out on the edge and leaving him there on an island. He wants each defensive back learning every single position in zone coverage. He said man-to-man is one thing: it's easy. You find your man. In zone, he wants to get to the point where every single defensive back can play any and every position in zone coverage at any point in time throughout a game's duration.
"Our corners learn how to play rolled up corner, they learn how to play half safety, they learn how to play the curl, they learn how to play the hook. They learn all the different spots in coverage," Pees said. "… They have to know them all."
Pees' reasoning behind this is twofold.
For starters, this philosophy helped him reach the pinnacle of success for a coach in the league.
"I went through a year one time in the NFL where we started eight different corners during the season," Pees said, "and we won the Super Bowl."
So, it's a philosophy that helps secure depth. It's already come up in Atlanta, too. Kendall Sheffield hasn't practiced for a couple weeks. In his place, TJ Green has moved outside after spending a vast majority of the snaps of the first week of training camp at safety. But even out wide, Green still shows remnants of those safety days. And it's because he has to in this scheme.
Furthermore, it's a philosophy with a foundation based in what Pees wants to accomplish scheme-wise. The word "multiple" is nearly synonymous with Pees at this point in his career. When asked in his introductory press conference what the Falcons base formation would be – a 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5? – Pees responded with a simple, "Yes."
Not much has changed in that regard for Pees in the months that have followed. He still wants to be multiple, and that simply means – in his words – moving players "all over the place."
"People don't really know that if I have a corner standing out there and he runs back to the half field or now all of a sudden he's a corner that's blitzing or now he's a corner and he's playing the curl," Pees said. "The offenses have to try and figure it out. It's that conceptually."
Pees explained it's that way with the linebackers: "Outside guys know how to play inside." It's that way with defensive lineman, too: "All the defensive linemen know how to play all three positions."
When practicing this method of multiplicity, Pees nearly ensures that everyone has a much deeper grasp of the defensive scheme.
"Instead of memorizing your position, you learn the concept of the defense," Pees said. "It also helps you understand the problems the other guys might have."
This was something Erik Harris discussed when he brought up Pees' conceptional teaching at the start of training camp.
"(We're) learning the concepts of the defense, because you're in different spots so you have to know where the pro drop is, you have to know where the flat drop is, deep thirds," Harris said. "It helps you to understand the defense and where you can make plays within the defense because you know where your help is coming from. You're not just always out there on an island every time, looking at one and reading two. You're everywhere."
Pees continued with the example of a cornerback: Let's say he's playing Cover 2. Let's also say he needs to jam the receiver so the receiver can't get deep on the safety. Put the corner back in the half field for a play or two, Pees said, have the receiver get jammed and then have him run free. Now the cornerback knows what dominos fall when he doesn't do his job.
"He – all of a sudden – has a different respect for the guy who's behind him, same way with the linebackers, too," Pees said.
The long-time defensive coordinator commended the defense he inherited for really buying into this conceptional thinking and teaching. So much so, the defensive leader – Grady Jarrett – probably explained this mentality best:
"There's no excuse," Jarrett said, "for not knowing multiple positions."