What the Atlanta Falcons might look for in a new defensive coordinator

Grady Jarrett figures to play a key role for whoever is the next Falcons defensive coordinator. Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The net will be wide, the options potentially plentiful. This is how the Atlanta Falcons are approaching their search for a new defensive coordinator, one started Monday after Dean Pees announced his retirement.

There was a thought the Pees-Falcons relationship might last at least three seasons, as that’s what Pees was contractually signed to in 2021, but things happen -- from a season-long cold Pees referenced in his retirement news conference to his desire to spend more time with his family.

What might the Falcons might be looking for in Pees’ successor?

A lot of that starts with how the defense was constructed in the first place. Coach Arthur Smith and Pees wanted to run a hybrid, multiple front with flexibility, which is where Smith is going to focus his search.

“Structurally, it’s really about being flexible. There’s a lot of guys and a lot of great schemes in this league,” Smith said. "... But when you are building the kind of hybrid model, like, you’re not looking for an overhaul.

“We’ve been building something here.”

Smith specifically pointed to the Baltimore Ravens' defense -- a unit Pees ran from 2012 to 2017 -- as an example of what they are trying to do. Be multiple and versatile with enough room for tweaks based on the personality of an individual coordinator. But the premise and overall concept of the defense remains the same.

The foundation, though, is something Smith believes is there. Atlanta has players it can build around on each level, from Grady Jarrett on the line to cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Richie Grant in the secondary and last year’s second-round picks, Arnold Ebiketie as an edge rusher and Troy Andersen as an inside linebacker.

“It’s not like now we’re bringing in a new visionary of the defense and he’s going to have a whole different plan,” general manager Terry Fontenot said. “Arthur really knows what he’s looking for, and he’ll be strategic in that when we sign, when we draft players, we won’t be prisoners of the moment and they’re not gonna fit.

“We’re drafting players that can be multiple.”

In Pees’ two years coordinating Atlanta’s defense, on passing plays the Falcons were in some form of man defense for 464 plays, and in zone -- primarily Cover 2 or Cover 3 -- on 755 plays. Overall, of the 2,196 defensive snaps Pees coached with the Falcons, 65.9% of the time Atlanta was in nickel and 33.7% in a form of their base defense -- typically with three linemen and an outside linebacker/edge rusher hybrid.

Pees evolved, too. In 2021, Atlanta was in nickel 73.2% of the time and base defense 26.2%. In 2022, the Falcons were in nickel 58.4% and a base defense 41.3%.

But what Pees did was help create the foundation on which Smith and whoever his new hire is can build. Pees, when he retired, pointed to the second half of this season where he saw improvement from his team and what he was trying to accomplish.

Atlanta allowed more than 350 yards once and more than 20 points three times over the last nine games of the season. The Falcons were seventh in red zone defense in the second half of the season (50%) but still poor on third downs (44.9%), No. 30 in the league.

In the second halves of games, Atlanta averaged 7.94 points allowed -- second in the NFL and one of two teams, along with Buffalo, to be under eight points a game.

“The final product was one of the things I heard so much about an Atlanta defense when I came here was not finishing games,” Pees said. “That was always the big push.”

What might that mean for Atlanta’s next coordinator? It’s tough to say. Smith believes the team is in a different place now than when he was able to bring Pees out of retirement to help out. He relied on Pees’ experience in his first two years as a head coach. This time around, Smith said he’s open to anyone because of where the franchise and the culture he’s trying to instill is now versus then.

It doesn’t mean Smith won’t look at coordinators with experience, but that isn’t going to be a prerequisite for the job.

If the Falcons want to talk with a potential defensive coordinator on a team that wins a game this weekend, those interviews can occur from Jan. 23-28. So the process might take a while.