OWINGS MILLS – It was nearly three decades ago when Dean Pees was the defensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio), where he coached a young, determined defensive back named John Harbaugh.
Flash forward to today and Pees has been charged with running the Baltimore Ravens’ heralded defense after being promoted from linebackers coach by Harbaugh on Friday.
“If he can make me any kind of a player, that tells you what a great coach he really is,” Harbaugh said with a laugh. “I always respected his work, always respected the kind of person he is. The tradition of this defense, it will flourish and it will get even better. It will be in coach Pees’ hands.”
A former New England Patriots defensive coordinator under coach Bill Belichick, Pees is known for his meticulous film study and ability to identify opponents’ tendencies and tells.
Pees, 62, steps into a formidable position considering the Ravens’ rich tradition of defense and whom he’s following.
Pees succeeds Chuck Pagano, the new Indianapolis Colts head coach who revitalized the Ravens’ dormant pass rush with 48 sacks last season as Baltimore finished third in total defense.
Now, the cerebral veteran coach takes over a defense headlined by two future Hall of Famers in middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed as well as Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Pees becomes the sixth defensive coordinator in franchise history, following Pagano, Greg Mattison, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan and Marvin Lewis. All of those men except for Mattison went on to become NFL head coaches with two former defensive assistants, Jack Del Rio and Mike Smith, also ascending to that level.
Pees has his own distinct personality, different from the fiery Pagano, the outspoken, swaggering Ryan, the blunt nature of Nolan and the strong charisma of Lewis.
Pees is known for his intellect and for getting his players to buy into what he’s doing.
“They’ve got their own style and their own personality, and it is what it is, and I’m not going to change it,” said Pees, who plans to coach from the sidelines. “I have my own personality. I’m not going to be the same as Chuck Pagano or Greg Mattison or anybody before.
“I will be who I am, but I don’t in any way want to change that room whatsoever or the dynamics of that room. I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited about it, and I’m very humbled by being a Raven. I very much look forward to it.”
Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is a veteran unrestricted free agent, but decided to attend the press briefing to show his support for Pees.
“When Dean speaks, everybody listens because you know you’re about to learn something,” Johnson said. “He commands a lot of respect just from his voice and the way he handles the room. You can tell when he talks, he’s had a lot of football experience in a lot of leadership positions, whether it is head coach or coordinator.”
Added inside linebacker Jameel McClain: “He is a great coach. He really fits the player’s personality so well. He is a proven winner in this league. I have been around many coaches in my football career, and Dean Pees is as sharp and aware as they come. We are lucky to have him as our coordinator, and I expect great things from our defense.”
Besides elevating Pees, the Ravens retained offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and said that assistant head coach and special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg will also be back.
The Ravens didn’t take long to give Pees the job, choosing him over defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. Although Brooks has been mentioned as a candidate to join the Colts’ staff, he attended Pees’ introductory press conference.
Harbaugh was sold on Pees and didn’t hesitate to grant him a coveted post. And he said he only considered internal candidates.
“I think if you get a chance to talk to any of our players, they’ll tell you what a great football coach this man is and what a good person he is, too,” Harbaugh said. “We go back a long way. All the way through the ranks, he’s been one of the top coaches around and the record speaks for itself.
“I didn’t look around the league at all. I looked no further than this staff and wouldn’t stop with coach Pees. Any one of the guys on our defensive staff is capable of coordinating in this league. Right now it’s the perfect fit.”
“I think it’s part of the reason why we’ve been good for so long,” Johnson said. “In the last 10 to 12 years, we’ve never had a guy from the outside come in who is going to bring in all his own coaches, who is going to bring in all his own players and revamp.
“Guys have come in from other places, but they’ve been on the staff for a good amount of time, and they learn what we do here and how we do it. When they get their opportunities, they have their tweaks and their improvements but they don’t totally change what we’ve done here.”
Working for the Patriots, Pees coached the linebackers for two seasons and was defensive coordinator for four years.
It was a successful run where the Patriots were the lone team in the league to rank in the top 10 in scoring defense annually as they allowed fewer than 20 points annually during his tenure.
A former head coach at Kent State, Pees left New England following a 33-14 loss to the Ravens in an AFC wild-card game where running back Ray Rice rushed for 159 yards.
Pees has consistently denied that he was fired or that he left because of a medical condition that flared up when he had a bad reaction to asthma medicine.
“I decided not to go back there,” Pees said. “My contract was up. I didn’t renew my contract. I was not fired, and I decided to explore other avenues. And this was a great avenue to explore.”
Pees said he learned valuable lessons while working in New England while coaching the likes of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, safety Rodney Harrison and nose guard Vince Wilfork.
When asked what he had gleaned, Pees replied: “Win. We won there and we’re winning here. It’s not just New England. It’s everybody. It’s a culmination of a lot of years, being with a lot of people, seeing a lot of different things. I’ve been in a lot of different schemes and there’s no one scheme that is great. If that was the case, everybody would be playing that scheme. It’s what fits your personality. It’s what fits your personnel most of all.”
Pees is looking to make his own imprint on the Ravens’ defense.
While that likely entails tinkering with a successful unit that ranked second in rushing defense, allowing 92.6 yards per game, fourth in passing defense, giving up 196.3 yards per game, first in red-zone defense and third in scoring defense (16.6 points per game), an overhaul isn’t in the offing.
“You have to put your own stamp on it, that’s a challenge,” Harbaugh said. “For the last four years here, they’ve all done it incredibly well. We’ve been third, third, third in scoring defense. Our goal is to be first. That’s the next step for us. We want to be the best in the league at everything we do and to me, Dean Pees, along with the rest of our coaching staff, that’s the emphasis here.
“You’re going to see a fiery Dean Pees and you’re going to see an aggressive defense, just like you’ve seen in the past. We’ll be getting after people. That’s the plan. That’s not going to change. We’re going to build on that.”
In the AFC title game, the Ravens intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady twice and held him to zero touchdowns.
The Ravens will need to hire a linebackers coach to replace Pees. They’ll also likely be replacing some assistant coaches.
Going forward, the players can count on a lot of tips and knowledge from Pees.
If this was the old days of football, he would burn up film projectors watching as much game footage as he does.
“I’ve got a lot of experience as far as watching a lot of film and watching other teams,” Pees said. “You’re always trying to make yourself better studying other teams. I think when you study film as much as we all do, pretty soon you start seeing tendencies. I think then it’s a matter of the information that you want to be able to give players needs to be pertinent to what they’re doing.
“Just to spew out a bunch of stats to them or give them a bunch of things that don’t hold true all the time, really, players don’t want to hear that. ‘What can I lock in on? Give me a couple things I can lock in on, and that’s going to help me. If you’re going to give me 100 things, I can’t remember all those things.’”