Dean Pees and the Falcons Show Ruthless Aggression

Atlanta Falcons FS Duron Harmon
Atlanta Falcons FS Duron Harmon
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 14 - In my mind, Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees is a huge John Cena fan. No, not the Cena we see now who's in all the movies. Not the "Never Give Up" John Cena whose theme song has become a meme, and although I could totally see him rapping along, I don't think Pees was a "Doctor of Thuganomics" Cena fan either. The John Cena I think Pees was a fan of was the Cena who made his Smackdown debut in June 2002, when Cena uttered these two words:

"Ruthless Aggression."

Pees has been one of the better defensive masterminds at generating pressure for the greater part of a decade, and the pressure calls he schemed up were amplified to the max on Sunday in the Falcons' win over the Carolina Panthers. Panthers quarterbacks Cam Newton and P.J. Walker were under constant duress throughout the game, and that resulted in not only a sack, but two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Pees took advantage of a terrible Panthers offensive line with rushers from depth as well as creative loopers on designed pass rush games.

On the pick-six Newton threw, Pees flipped a traditional blitz on its head to confuse the Panthers offensive line. Carolina comes out in a bunch set to the right with tight end Ian Thomas being the lone receiver on the other side. Atlanta crowds the line of scrimmage with six defenders, seven if you include the nickel corner who is head up over the point man in the bunch set. Carolina motions the running back from one side to the other, and a Falcons defensive back switches sides, giving Newton the pre-snap notification that they'll be in man coverage. Normally out of this formation, teams will blitz everyone that's on the line of scrimmage, and the free safety would take the tight end if he runs a route. To the bunch side, the Falcons could be playing "LIB" coverage, with the press corner locked into man coverage on Robby Anderson (11), while the other two corners "Banjo" the other two receivers: first guy in goes to the inside corner, first guy out goes to the outside corner. It would look something like this:

Play diagram

However, what Pees does is change the picture after the ball is snapped. The offensive line slides their protection to the tight end side, and the tight end stays in to pass block. What Newton thinks he'll have is running back Ameer Abdullah on an angle route with a two-way go against zero coverage, meaning no help for any of the Falcons defensive backs. What the Falcons do is make Deion Jones (45) cover the tight end in man and have Mykal Walker (3) rotate into the hook area, meaning the free safety has deep coverage. As for the blitz, Dante Fowler crosses the center's face, and the other two linemen for the Falcons do the same. Because Carolina is sliding their protection to the left, this leaves a free run for Foyesade Olokun, who loops from the left B-gap all the way to the right edge of the play. Newton feels the free rusher and assumes he has Abdullah hot on an angle route. Instead, it's a pick-six on a beautifully designed blitz by Pees.

Cam Pick-Six

On the other interception thrown by Walker, the Panthers are in empty with DJ Moore as the No. 3 receiver to Walker's right. The Panthers run a "China" concept: two in-breakers by the outside two receivers and a corner route by the No. 3 receiver. Atlanta goes with a fire zone blitz with Cover-3 behind it, but there's more to that story. Atlanta ran a lot of Inverted Cover-2 in this game, especially early in the day. They would go from single-high coverage, with one of the safeties buzzing into the hook/curl area either pre-snap or post-snap. The lone free safety would fly to the deep half and the backside corner would go from his position to the other deep half of the field. They ran it here on this Newton completion to Moore:

Inverted C2

The "China" concept would be good against this coverage because it creates a high-low against the corner, especially if the safety can't get over the top of the inside corner route. But, like I said, this isn't Inverted Cover 2. Deion Jones rushes from depth into the B-gap and the play-side edge rusher drops into the hook/curl area, cutting off any immediate in-breaking routes. The nickel corner goes from No. 2 to No. 1 on his zone coverage because of the back-side end, and Walker gets suckered into an easy interception for A.J. Terrell.

P.J. Walker Pick

However, look at this play from the end zone angle, and you'll see a common theme for the Panthers this season: left tackle Cam Erving blocked NOBODY. He tries to account for the Jones blitz by picking him up late, but doesn't get enough of him. The back-side edge rusher is also free, and Walker is hurried into a poor throw.

P.J. Walker Pick-Endzone Angle

Pees put the Panthers offensive line in a blender with creative blitzes and games, but some of the problems that came up were due to self-inflicted wounds. This was early in the game. The Panthers motion out Abdullah, and the Falcons linebacker follows him. This is a signifier of man coverage—simple. Moore is lined up in the slot and notices that the Falcons nickel corner is going to blitz, and points him out for Newton and the Panthers offensive line. The nickel corner blitzes, nobody picks him up, and Newton is hurried into a failed pass.

Panthers failed blitz pickup

Sticking with the wrestling references, Pees took a steel chair to the Panthers offense for the entire game, and took advantage of problems that have plagued Carolina for the entire season.

Where the Game Swung

Where the Game Swung: ATL-CAR

Quarter Location Down Distance Time Description GWC
2 ATL 36 3 6 8:47 C.Newton pass short middle INTERCEPTED at ATL 34. Intercepted by M.Walker at ATL 34. M.Walker for 66 yards, TOUCHDOWN. +24.7%
3 ATL 47 2 3 4:45 C.Newton FUMBLES (aborted). Fumble RECOVERED by ATL-G.Jarrett at CAR 49. Tackled by at ATL 47. +18.8%
2 CAR 29 3 6 2:00 P.Walker pass deep right INTERCEPTED at ATL 46. Intercepted by A.Terrell at ATL 46. Tackled by R.Anderson at ATL 46. +8.8%
3 ATL 17 1 10 11:27 C.Hubbard rushed right tackle to ATL End Zone for 17 yards. C.Hubbard for 17 yards, TOUCHDOWN. -8.5%

This entire chart for Where the Game Swung reads like Carolina pulled one of the worst things to do in Pokemon: they hurt themselves in confusion!

It hurt itself in confusion

It's really hard to win games when you repeatedly turn the ball over, especially in opponent territory. Atlanta didn't have to do much offensively, because Carolina dug themselves into a hole over and over again on the offensive side of the ball.

By the DVOA

ATL 10.6% 14.8% 12.1% 8.0%
CAR -28.3% 25.7% 0.4% -53.6%
ATL 9.0% -2.2% 12.1% 23.3%
CAR -13.7% 9.6% 0.4% -22.9%

Congrats to Atlanta for putting together their best DVOA performance of the season! This is only the second time they have finished a game with a positive DVOA, the previous time being Week 7 when they posted a 0.7% total DVOA in a 30-28 win over Miami. The fact that Atlanta somehow put together this performance and remains 32nd in DVOA for the season is objectively hilarious, however. Especially when you combine that stat with the fact that Atlanta is 6-7 and still in the hunt for a playoff spot!

It would be hard to believe, but this isn't Carolina's worst DVOA performance this season. That goes to their 33-10 implosion against the Miami Dolphins in Week 12. However, this offensive performance is extremely troublesome. Since Week 5, Carolina has posted a negative offensive DVOA in seven matchups, the lone two positive DVOA performances being against Arizona and Washington.

What is Dead May Never Die

If I were comparing the Atlanta Falcons season to any WWE wrestler, it would probably be the Undertaker circa 2019-2020. Sometimes they'll pull themselves off the canvas and sit up like the Deadman used to, but it's clear that the Undertaker doesn't have it anymore. The Falcons are somehow playing the dangerous game of being 6-7 while being dead last in DVOA and having a point differential of -108 and being 1-5 at home. With San Francisco, Buffalo, and New Orleans left on the schedule, I really do find it difficult to imagine this Atlanta Falcons team making the playoffs. Anything can happen in the NFL, but this team just isn't that good this year. It's a miracle they're a game under .500 at this point.

Carolina, on the other hand, reminds me of a signature Kurt Angle moment. No, not the Olympic gold medal win or WrestleMania main events. This one:

The Panthers were looking like one of the surprises of the league after a 3-0 start, but inconsistency at quarterback has plagued them for the entire season. However, I think most of the blame needs to go to head coach Matt Rhule and the building of this offense. I am by no means defending Sam Darnold—he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last year and has failed to show any improvement—but nobody would be successful behind this Panthers offensive line. According to ESPN's Next Gen Stats, Carolina is 28th in the league in Pass Block Win Rate and 25th in Run Block Win Rate. Matt Rhule said he wanted to run the ball more—that's why the Panthers canned Joe Brady—but it would be futile behind an offensive line that's 28th in stuff rate. They're also last in adjusted sack rate, so passing the ball won't help either. At best, it's foolish pride for Rhule to continue to throw different quarterbacks behind this line and expect something different; at worst it's sheer negligence.

Rhule has also mismanaged the quarterback situation to an extent that might be beyond repair. Continuing to rotate in quarterbacks during the game like a college scheme isn't viable at the NFL level. Quarterbacks need to be able to get into a rhythm, and Rhule rotating in Newton and Walker within quarters as if they were playing a preseason game is poor roster management. Above all, I think the biggest thing is Rhule has shown an arrogance and pride in how he thinks the NFL works without any results to show for it. If he wants to run the ball well, go for it, but bring in players who will help you do that. The poor roster management of the offense has doomed this season for Carolina, and probably will cost Rhule his job.


1 comment, Last at 15 Dec 2021, 8:31am

1 "It hurt itself in its…

"It hurt itself in its confusion!" does sound like a good summation of Carolina's coaching staff this year.