Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees announces retirement
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For the third time in his career, Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees has announced his retirement.
Falcons players said Pees told the team in a meeting and then spoke to the defense separately to express his appreciation for what they had done over the past season, and in some cases, two seasons.
“For me, it was exciting just knowing that he’s stepping into that next stage of his life,” outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “He’s coached for 50 years. He’s been around. So it’s just exciting. It’s an honor to have played for him.
“He just put it out there that this is what he’s been thinking and he made a decision. It’s been great and I’m excited for him.”
Pees’ decision comes after the completion of his 50th year as a coach on the high school, college or professional level, a career that has spanned 12 different places, eight states, numerous head coaches and countless lives of players and young assistants influenced.
“A lot of years,” Pees said at the start of the season. “A lot of football.”
Pees, 73, has spent the past two seasons in Atlanta, coming out of retirement No. 2 to help first-time head coach Arthur Smith set a culture for his program and his defense.
The two had worked together and become close during their time with the Tennessee Titans, where Smith was the tight ends coach and then the offensive coordinator during Pees’ final season in Tennessee.
“It meant a lot. A lot of wisdom,” Smith said. “People, and you never stop trying to learn from others, and it meant a lot to me personally. I’m glad he’s been here.”
Pees worked primarily with a young defense in 2022 — more than half of the Falcons’ opening-day starters were on rookie contracts, as was most of his depth — and Atlanta found ways to improve as the season went on. The Falcons finished No. 23 in points allowed and No. 27 in yards allowed but gave up more than 20 points in a game just once over the final six games.
Points allowed, Pees said, was the metric he went by the most in terms of judging his defenses. The lone game in that stretch Atlanta did allow over 20 points was the one game he didn’t coach after Pees was involved in an on-field accidental collision during pregame in New Orleans that briefly sent him to the hospital for precautionary measures. He was also hospitalized during a game while he was coaching the Titans in 2018, but in both cases Pees returned to coaching.
So as Pees leaves, he feels like he is also departing with Atlanta having a strong defensive culture and Pees said in January “at this point in time, I’m happy with where the defense is at” when asked if that would play into his retirement decision.
“If we were playing the same now as we were at the beginning of the year or last year, then I would say it hasn’t gone like expected,” Pees said. “But you guys tell me if you think we’re playing better or we’re not playing better.
“In my eyes, we’re playing a lot better than we did in the first half of the year, a lot better. It’s trending in the right direction. Isn’t that what you want?”
Pees would know from five decades of coaching. He began his coaching career at Elmwood High School in Ohio before moving to the University of Findlay in 1979, where he became the defensive coordinator — and a driver’s education instructor. That year, they won the NAIA Division II national title.
In 1983 he moved to Division I, coordinating the defense at Miami (Ohio), where he implemented both 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses helping to build the defensive philosophies he carried throughout his career. He went from there to Navy and then Toledo under a young Nick Saban. From there, he went to Notre Dame and back with Saban to Michigan State.
Some defensive principles he honed in his years at Toledo post-Saban, when he needed to create advantages, the Falcons used this season with multiple linebacker fronts and outside linebackers, in some cases, really playing line standup defensive ends.
It was in those years of collegiate coaching that part of Pees’ philosophy crystallized — bring pressure not just from the front but from the secondary, too. Teach concepts over position. Have players who can be versatile. It’s why he made sure his safeties knew both safety spots — same with his linebackers.
“I noticed it really messed a lot of people up and they thought we were playing a 3-4 and we really weren’t,” Pees told ESPN in 2021. “We were playing a 4-3, but the guy who was playing standup linebacker was really a three-technique.
“And so then I started adding guys from the secondary and saying, if this is screwing up the front, maybe we can screw up the quarterback by bringing secondary guys and dropping linebackers [into coverage] and kind of making them interchangeable and that’s kind of where it all started.”
He took the only head-coaching job of his career in 1998 at Kent State, where he lasted six seasons with a 17-51 record before deciding to go to the NFL to work under Bill Belichick and New England Patriots, first as a linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator. He won his first of two Super Bowls in 2004.
From New England he went to the Baltimore Ravens, again first as a linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator, where he won Super Bowl No. 2 with the Ravens in 2012.
“He’s one of the great defensive coordinators in the National Football League,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whom Pees coached at Miami (Ohio), said in 2022. “No question about it.”
In his NFL career, Pees had a top-10 defense in yards allowed seven times, points allowed eight times and takeaways five times.
Pees retired for the first time following the 2018 season, only to unretire less than a month later to become the defensive coordinator in Tennessee under Mike Vrabel, one of his players in New England.
He was the defensive coordinator for the Titans for two seasons before retiring a second time. He spent a year away — he hosted a radio show during the 2020 season — and was again lured out of retirement when Smith became the Falcons’ coach.
For Smith over the past two seasons, Pees was a mentor and a culture-setter for what he was trying to build, particularly on defense, as Atlanta dug out of a salary-cap mess.
“You appreciate all the work he’s put in, the sacrifice. We get paid to do this, lucky as hell, but there are a lot of sacrifices,” Smith said. “Dean’s a guy that’s coached at every level, had success, impacted a lot of lives and impacted the game.”