Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees talks about playing against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees kills the minutes before practices begin and the hours before games start by walking around the perimeter of the field. His pace is usually brisk and his eyes are trained toward the ground. He is almost always by himself and that's by design.
Pees wants there to be no distractions as he visualizes how the next couple of hours might unfold.
"It's just to get my thoughts together, what I'm looking for in practice, or even in a game, what am I going to do if they do this or that," Pees said after Thursday's practice. "I just want to be by myself and think about it."
More often than not this season, Pees' vision for his defense has been realized. The Ravens have confused quarterbacks, overwhelmed opposing running backs and forced turnovers. They have the No.1-ranked defense in the NFL and players say their veteran defensive coordinator's game plans are a major reason why.
Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan called Pees a "genius" and the "mastermind of it all." Safety Lardarius Webb used the word "special" three times in one sentence in describing Pees. Strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil said Pees runs one of the most sophisticated defenses in the NFL.
On Monday night, Pees and the Ravens will face one of their biggest challenges yet in trying to stop the New England Patriots and future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. That Pees spent six years working under Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the first two as the linebackers coach and the next four as the team's defensive coordinator, only adds to the experience.
"The meaning for me is the fact that we're in first place in our division and we need a win to keep that spot," Pees said. "The other significance is, anytime you're playing against a team that is a really, really good organization and good team — they have been a good team for a long, long time — it always means a lot. The fact that I was there, yeah, it's kind of like playing against your brother in golf. Sometimes you want to beat your friends and your family more than you want to beat somebody you don't know."
This season has provided vindication of sorts for Pees, but good luck getting the well-liked and widely respected coach to acknowledge it. He understands and appreciates the expectations Ravens fans have for their defenses, and he has also been in the pressure cooker of the NFL long enough to not be consumed by outside opinion.
However, when the Ravens got off to a poor start last year and their defense was giving up points and yards at an alarming rate, the criticism was unavoidable, and the team's 67-year-old defensive coordinator was the target of a lot of it.
"I'm the same guy I was a year ago," Pees said. "The way I look at it, I go out every day and try to give it the best I got. That's all I can do. I'm going to try and call the best game I can. Sometimes it comes out good, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's my fault, sometimes it's not. No one person should ever get all the blame and no one person should get all the praise. It's all of us.
"There are so many factors. The biggest thing is you just have to stay confident in yourself and in your ability to do your job. Whether somebody criticizes you, they aren't here every day. They don't know. They have no idea. They don't even know what coverage we are in half the time, so I don't know how they can explain the coverage. It's just gratifying that we're playing well, but it was gratifying last year, too. It was a struggle at the beginning, but hey, we got it turned around and we've got it going in the right direction."
Pees and his players pointed to the team's second-half turnaround last year as one of the factors behind this year's success. Despite injuries to several of their top players, the Ravens had the league's No. 2-ranked defense and the top-ranked pass defense in the second half of 2015.
"If you look at last year, with all the injuries we had, we were able to stay a top-10 defense," Dumervil said. "That just shows you the body of work that Dean has."
Dumervil played for six different defensive coordinators in his seven seasons with the Denver Broncos. He said Pees is unique because of his ability to teach and direct complex schemes in simpler terms. The longtime football coach isn't regarded as a yeller or screamer, but players appreciate how he makes his point without singling anybody out for criticism.
As far as his defensive play-calling, Pees is known throughout the league as a guy who loves to disguise coverages and show different looks to prevent quarterbacks from getting too comfortable. This past Sunday, the Ravens frequently played zone defense and that seemed to confuse Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. During other games, opposing teams have acknowledged to being caught off-guard by a few looks from the Ravens defense.
The Ravens lacked the healthy personnel last year and they became more predictable by necessity, but their defense is now far better equipped this season with the additions of Eric Weddle, Jerraud Powers and Tavon Young, along with the healthy return of Terrell Suggs. Not only are the Ravens allowing the fewest total yards per game in the NFL (296.1), they're first against the run and on third downs, and they're tied for second with 14 interceptions.
"He's the one that's orchestrating everything we do," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said of Pees. "He's been excellent this season as far as mixing it up, pressuring. We're sitting atop of the league right now because of the things that he's doing."
Said Jernigan: "Coach Pees, he's what makes this stuff work. All we have to do is just go out and play."
Pees is in his fifth season as the Ravens defensive coordinator after he replaced Chuck Pagano, who was hired to be head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Under Pees, the Ravens ranked 17th and 12th defensively in 2012 and 2013 before finishing eighth in each of the past two seasons.
The defense's performance this year has caught the attention of several analysts. In a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun on Thursday, former NFL head coach and Monday Night Football broadcaster Jon Gruden said Pees "uses his roster as well as any coach in the league." He backed his point by citing the contributions of unheralded players like Zachary Orr and rookies Young, Michael Pierce and Matthew Judon.
"All you have to do is turn on the film and just remember the slogan: 'Play like a Raven.' That's what I see from this defense. They play their [butts] off," Gruden said. "They can line up a couple of different ways in their base defense, but they never really play a base defense. They're always in their sub package and I love it. They have a very creative, three-down, three-linebacker, five-defensive-back sub package that I love. They play man coverage, they play zone coverage and they play zone pressure coverage, and they don't give up big plays. They can all tackle. It just looks like they're having fun."
On Showtime's "Inside the NFL" this week, former NFL quarterback Phil Simms called Pees a difference-maker. "We never talk about some of these coaches that give their team a great chance to have success, and he's one of those guys," Simms said.
Pees quickly pointed out Thursday that the Ravens still have four regular-season games to play and the difficult season-ending stretch begins with a matchup against the Patriots. Brady has thrown 19 touchdown passes and one interception this season, but as Suggs pointed out Wednesday, "Dean Pees is also playing games at an all-time high, too."