Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows the New England Patriots well and it showed in the AFC Championship game. Pees' defense frustrated Tom Brady and company all game long and held them scoreless in the second half, keying Baltimore's 28-13 upset.
Pees coached for Bill Belichick and the Patriots from 2004 to 2009. That included a stint as defensive coordinator. His insider knowledge of how to beat Brady and expertise with the defensive schemes learned under Belichick, were perfectly evident. The similarities were apparent in a gameplan that had all the hallmarks of Belichick's trademark scheming. It began with denying Brady and his prolific attack the big play.
It is a common misconception that Brady still directs an offense based on so-called "dink and dunk" passes. However, the Patriots real skill is manufacturing big gains against bewildered defenses. The Patriots' pass offense ranked fourth in the league during the regular season. Included in that stat were 57 completions of 20 yards or more, including eight of 40 plus. The Ravens first priority was to eliminate this quick-strike capability.
Pees did it with by implementing a disciplined deep coverage scheme. He used both safeties to take away the vertical zones. Having a true centerfielder like Ed Reed certainly helped. With Brady denied the deep routes, the next step was to clamp down on the underneath passing lanes.
To keep everything in front, Pees had his cornerbacks play in off-coverage techniques. They gave New England's receivers a small cushion. This prevented them from going deep and consistently restricted them to minimal gains. One of the things the Ravens did really well was limiting their short coverage drops to the first down markers. This meant the Patriots couldn't run their patterns beyond the sticks and were frequently tackled short of first down yardage.
The key element of the plan was to punish the Patriots receivers with fierce hits. Every New England pass-catcher paid a heavy price for hauling the ball in. This approach was similar to the gameplan Belichick used as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, against the high-octane Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl 25.
Pees also succeeded in showing Brady some different pressures. The Patriots have excelled this season by overloading defenses with scheme. They have mixed the no-huddle with a standard tempo, to alter the pace of their attack. They have also split different players out wide to create favourable matchups.
Pees threw a dose of that scheming back at Brady and his offense. He attacked with some subtle zone-blitzes called at the right times. Pees sensibly blitzed the middle against the immobile Brady. Linebacker Darnell Ellerbe was a regular nuisance, as was Reed. The result was conisitent pressure on the pocket. Brady wan't brutalised the way he was by the Giants in two Super Bowls, but the Ravens never let him settle.
Pees' schemes worked superbly and stifled an attack that produced an NFL-best 557 points in 2012. The Patriots were a meagre seven of 15 on third down and averaged a measly 5.2 yards per play. By using a subtle a blend of disciplined coverage and sustained pressure, Pees upset his old team with the same tricks he learned in New England.