OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dean Pees spent 25 years in coaching before Bill Belichick gave him his first opportunity in the NFL.
So, you’ll forgive the new Ravens defensive coordinator if this Sunday’s meeting with the New England Patriots means a lot more than just a rematch of last January’s AFC Championship game. After spending six years working under Belichick, it’s always special for Pees to go up against his old team.
“It’s always an emotional day,” Pees said. “I’m not going to lie about that and act like it’s just another game. It’s a big game for me. It’s kind of like when you go out and you play golf against somebody and you want to win, but when you play your brothers, you really want to win. There’s a lot of friends over there on the other sideline, a lot of old colleagues, a lot of players that I coached.”
Sunday night’s game marks the first time that Pees faces the Patriots as a defensive coordinator, which is the post he held with New England from 2006 through 2009. His defenses ranked in the top 11 in total yards allowed in all four of those seasons and ranked no worse than eighth in points surrendered.
His departure from the Patriots still remains a mystery as Pees cited “personal reasons” for electing not to return upon having his contract expire after the 2009 season. It was widely speculated that Pees chose to leave the organization for health reasons as he experienced shortness of breath and was taken to the hospital in the regular-season finale of that season.
Others believe the Patriots weren’t completely enamored with his work as the defensive coordinator and privately didn’t want him to return. Regardless of what caused his departure, Pees immediately joined the Baltimore staff to coach the linebackers and became the defensive coordinator this offseason when Chuck Pagano was hired as the new coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
“Dean’s a very experienced coach,” Belichick said. “He’s done very well at a lot of different levels. [He] did a good job for us here — coached the linebackers, coached the secondary, was the defensive coordinator — and had a great experience on that side of the ball.”
Now Pees will be asked to slow one of the best offenses in the NFL over the last decade. Having already employed extensive use of the nickel package in the team’s first two games, Pees will likely copy the formula used by the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 — they played the nickel for nearly the entire game — to slow quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game.
Unfortunately for the 63-year-old coordinator, he won’t have one of his sounding boards to offer ideas for this week. Pees remains close with his former boss in New England, who is regarded as one of the best defensive minds in NFL history.
“We still speak on occasion when we’re playing a team that’s a common opponent and we aren’t playing each other,” Pees said. “In certain years, we’ll discuss things. It’s a great relationship.”
Special teams improvement
After being ranked 30th in the league in special teams efficiency by FootballOutsiders.com last season, the Ravens have shown much improvement through the first two weeks of the regular season.
In addition to rookie kicker Justin Tucker going 6-for-6 on field goals — with 2 beyond 50 yards — and Sam Koch punting effectively, the coverage units have shown marked improvement after allowing three return touchdowns last season. After finishing 31st in kickoff coverage last season, the Ravens are sixth in the league with opponents averaging only 18.8 yards per return. Baltimore is tied for 15th in punt return coverage as opponents have gained 10.4 yards per return attempt.
Improving the special teams units was an offseason priority as the Ravens added a few veterans with special teams experience and re-signed three-time Pro Bowl special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo.
“Our players that we look to make plays on special teams and coverage aspect – and in blocking – really played well,” Rosburg said. “Brendon had an excellent game; he had three tackles. Sean Considine had a couple of tackles. Corey Graham had a couple tackles. Sam [Koch] punted the ball very well. So, our players were making plays, and that was encouraging.”
Ayanbadejo has been honest in his assessment of the Ravens’ special teams units last season, citing a lack of commitment from younger players more interested in improving their standing on offense or defense and the lack of an offseason to fine-tune the coverage units.
“We took turns making mistakes,” Ayanbadejo said. “This year, the main thing is just consistency, not making those mistakes. And if we do, just make it one time and don’t have everybody rotate making mistakes because one breakdown can lead to a touchdown. That’s kind of what you saw last year.”
On Sunday, the Ravens even attempted to run a fake punt on a fourth-and-4 play from their own 43 in the first series of the second quarter. Considine appeared to have daylight in front of him after taking the snap but tripped over teammate James Ihedigbo, stopping him short of the first down. Rosburg took the blame Wednesday when asked what went wrong with the trick play.
The special teams coach went as far as to suggest it could have gone for a touchdown.
“I didn’t coach the timing of that play well enough,” Rosburg said. “If we had the timing down, it wouldn’t have mattered what happened. He probably would have stopped somewhere out there by General Washington’s encampment.”
McClain on outside looking in
The Ravens spent plenty of time in the nickel package against the Eagles in Week 2, meaning inside linebacker Jameel McClain was often replaced by fourth-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who is regarded to be stronger in pass coverage.
This left the Ravens with more flexibility to experiment with McClain at outside linebacker since Paul Kruger missed Sunday’s game with a back injury. A former defensive end at Syracuse, the fifth-year linebacker hadn’t played on the outside since his rookie season in which he mostly played special teams and saw limited action in passing situations.
Pees has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush without the use of blitzes, so it was an interesting choice to see McClain line up at rush linebacker on a few occasions.
“It’s something that I did in college. It’s a learning curve,” McClain said. “It’s something I’ve got to get back used to if I ever get the opportunity again. But, I got the chance and I hope the coaches believe I made the best out of it. With more opportunity, [there are] a lot more things I can do.”