FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As Dean Pees came to the podium for his mid-week news conference, he knew the question about the Falcons third down defense was coming. He was prepared for it.
So, in response to said question about what the Falcons have to do to get off the field on third down, Pees said simply that, yes, the Falcons have to get better on third down, they have to cover more consistently, but even in that need to improve he sees improvement elsewhere. It's the improvement elsewhere that he harped on.
On Wednesday, the long-time defensive coordinator talked for almost five straight minutes about the positive things he took out of Sunday's loss to the Chargers. He explained why he believes the Falcons defense is trending in the right direction.
Of the things Pees listed, here are the highlights:
- Atlanta gave up the fewest amount of big plays they have all season against the Chargers
- The Falcons held Justin Herbert to the second lowest quarterback rating this unit has given up all season
- The Chargers averaged 5.7 yards a catch, which was a number significantly lower than what it was against Cincinnati (11.5) and Carolina (8.8).
However, it wasn't so much a single stat line that makes Pees confident in saying this defense is heading in the right direction. It was a moment. A very particularly moment at that. One that no one on the outside looking in would ever recognize or realize.
After two years, Pees said the Falcons defense finally did something that it couldn't do before.
On Sunday, Pees saw a wrinkle in what the Chargers were trying to do offensively, a particularly motion that showed the defensive coordinator Los Angeles' hand.
So, when the defense came to the sideline in the fourth quarter, he went to his linebackers and secondary and put a play in that the Falcons hadn't practiced in weeks.
"If they do this motion," Pees recalled, "then we're doing this."
It wasn't a play that was in this past week's game plan. It was a play the Falcons ran four games ago, but one they hadn't recalled since.
As Pees said, it wasn't one they had been practicing or even preparing to use. It was an adjustment Pees felt like the Falcons had to make in the moment to come up with a stop.
A few plays later and the Falcons defense was out on the field executing said play, coming up with a critical third down stop in the red zone. With about five minutes and 30 seconds left in the game, the Chargers settled for a 31-yard field goal that tied the game up at 17-all instead of taking the lead.
In the grand scheme of the game, it was likely a moment that was overlooked, partially because no one knew what was happening on the sideline, and partially because the Falcons didn't win on Sunday. If they didn't win, why look at a series in the fourth quarter that ended in points on the board for Los Angeles? For Pees, that answer is obvious.
"We couldn't do that a year ago," he said. "Probably couldn't do that earlier in the season. That's growth."
In the past, Pees said it wouldn't have been an adjustment or a call he would have made, or asked the defense to chance on the fly. He likely would have had to live with the outcome.
"I might have given up a real big play, trying to adjust it and then they screw up the adjustment. Now, they didn't," Pees said. "That - to me - was such a positive coming off the field. They felt good about themselves, that, 'Hey, we took something from the sideline, put it in and went out there and executed.' That says a lot about our team and a lot about our guys."
More than the overall stats and more than the Falcons needing to be better on third down, Pees said this is what he holds onto. This moment. Because it was one that showed him "guys are understanding the defense. It's guys finally understanding the defense."
For that reason, the defensive coordinator is pleased with the steps this defense is taking almost two years into his arrival in Atlanta. And he doesn't care if outside perspective agrees with him or not.
"I have been around defenses for a long time. I am not disappointed in this defense," Pees said. "I am very happy about this defense and where it's going."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Carolina Panthers, presented by Gatorade.