After the Baltimore Ravens defense allowed more than 25 points per game in 2015, 24th best in the NFL, many believed defensive coordinator Dean Pees should have been replaced in the offseason. However, the first half of the 2016 season has proven Pees is highly capable of orchestrating an exemplary defense with competent personnel at his disposal.
The defense’s turnaround has been dramatic. Last season the Ravens allowed 104 rushing yards per game (12th best in the league), 40% efficiency on third downs (19th best) and the fewest interceptions in the entire league. This season, the Ravens defense has allowed 76 rushing yards per game (2nd best), 32% third down efficiency (2nd best) and has corralled the fourth most interceptions in the NFL.
The 2016 Ravens have the #2 ranked defense in the league, allowing less than 300 total yards per game. They have allowed the least amount of first downs per game of any team, and the fifth least yards per play. Football Outsiders ranks Baltimore’s defense as the sixth most efficient defense in the league, when quality of opponents is taken into account, after ranking the Ravens 18th in this category last season.
Furthermore, Pees has absolutely owned the rival Steelers’ offense in recent meetings, giving the Ravens a source of pride through some tough times. In 2015, Pees maligned defense held Pittsburgh to an average of 283 yards per game, 112 yards below their season average, and to 18.5 points per game over two regular season meetings, almost eight points below their scoring average. In Sunday’s showdown, the Ravens limited the Steelers to 36 total rushing yards, 264 passing yards and 14 points, well below their season averages.
As it turns out, Pees can put together effective gameplans, even with minimal contributions from Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens top pass rusher. The main reasons for the improvement in 2016 have been the addition of safety Eric Weddle, who has greatly improved communication in the secondary, and the emergence of linebacker Zach Orr, who has provided much needed speed in the middle of the field. Rebound seasons from Jimmy Smith and C.J. Mosley have also been crucial. And the depth chart has been bolstered by several impressive rookies, including corner Tavon Young, who is coming into his own as a cover man, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who has made an impact on running plays and outside linebacker Matt Judon, who is on pace to match Dumervil’s sack total from last season.
If the Ravens are able to hold onto their lead in the AFC North over the second half of the season, it is almost assured that Pees will be retained. His coaching this season has earned him an opportunity to continue developing the defense in future seasons. With a strong core of young playmakers, the defense is close to becoming an imposing unit again.
The question this coming offseason will become - Should the team invest more free agency and draft resources in order to add the few pieces necessary to field a dominant defense in 2017?