Dean Pees said he felt sick.
The Ravens defense, the unit that had defined the franchise for nearly its entire existence, was uncharacteristically run over during the first seven games of the regular season.
After their Week 7 game against the Houston Texans the Ravens were ranked 28th overall in the NFL in total defense, allowing an even 400 yards per game. They were the second-worst team in the league at stopping the run, surrendering an average of 142.9 yards.
“It's up to me and it's up to our staff to get this thing corrected,” Pees said in mid-October.
Pees and the Ravens have done just that.
They aren’t as fearsome as the defense that led the Ravens to the Super Bowl 12 years ago, but Baltimore’s defense is formidable once again as it heads to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
“They’re very well coached and they’ve got really good players,” 49ers Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said. “It jumps off the screen.”
Pees put the unit’s early-season struggles mostly on his shoulders.
He said he came into the job and didn’t want to change too much because the defense had been so good for so long. But then he realized that this year’s group was too different from last year’s to do the same job. In short, he asked his players to do too much.
“The biggest problem that we had – and I take the blame for it – is trying to do exactly what we had done in the past without really looking at, ‘Can these guys do what has been done in the past?’” Pees said.
“After we got through the break, I think we really changed as a defense and for the better. Maybe I should have seen that a little earlier, but I didn’t. But at least we saw it.”
The Ravens also had discipline problems. They were missing too many tackles and didn’t keep their eyes in the right position, Pees said. The defense got back to the fundamentals during the bye and it hasn’t been an issue since.
“We weren’t a very fundamentally-sound defense early on, and that’s why we had struggles,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
The Ravens gave up an average of 14.5 points during the month of November – a league low. They finished the regular season ranked 17th in the NFL in total defense.
In the playoffs, Baltimore allowed just nine points to the Indianapolis Colts and rookie first-overall draft pick Andrew Luck. The defense picked off Denver quarterback Peyton Manning twice and gave up just 290 passing yards. It shut Tom Brady and the Patriots out in the second half in the AFC championship.
It took flexibility from the team’s coordinator.
“He’s done a phenomenal job through most of the year,” safety
The Ravens defense was also tested by injuries throughout the year, from missing Suggs for the first six games to Lewis for the final 10 of the regular season. Star cornerback
Pees promoted players from the practice squad, mixed and matched positions and tweaked schemes. He played into the strengths of each individual player. For example, rookie outside linebacker
Pees said it was a challenge to shuffle his pieces around so much. But he also took some enjoyment from it.
“It’s kind of fun to draw some things up and do things a little differently and still try to get the job done,” Pees said. “In some ways [it was] challenging, but in some ways it was really rewarding, too.”
The Ravens finally got healthy towards the end of the season. They got Lewis back in the middle, calling out opposing team’s plays, for the playoffs.
But while Lewis’ arrival, and the emotional uplift as a result, have been often credited as the reason for Baltimore’s defensive arrival, the changes began much sooner than that.
They began when the unit was under fire early in the season, when Pees challenged himself and his players to simply get better.
“He’s a guy that rolled with the punches,” Williams said of Pees. “He took all that criticism and all the negative things that were said, put it on his shoulders and just let it slide off. He’s a tremendous leader.”
So would Pees ever consider becoming a head coach? The Ravens have had four different defensive coordinators in just five years under Harbaugh: Rex Ryan, Greg Mattison, Chuck Pagano and Pees.
“I do not want to be a head coach,” Pees emphatically said. “I want to be a defensive coordinator. … I was [a head coach] in college. They can have that gig all they want. No thank you.”