NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee defensive coordinator Dean Pees still talks with his old boss, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.
Just not this week.
Pees spent eight years working for Harbaugh first coaching linebackers and then defensive coordinator, helping the Ravens win a Super Bowl. He retired after the 2017 season, then quickly went back to work when Mike Vrabel asked Pees to be his defensive coordinator with the Titans only weeks later.
Now Pees is trying to help a third team reach a Super Bowl, hoping to add the Titans to his short list that also includes the Patriots, and his defense will be trying to slow down Lamar Jackson and the NFL’s best offense on Saturday night in an AFC divisional playoff game.
“If you go out and play golf, I’d rather beat my brother at golf than somebody I don’t know,” Pees said Wednesday. “I’ll be keyed up for it and want to get after them. At the same time, when it’s over those people are still my friends.”
The top-seeded Ravens (14-2) led the NFL in averaging 33.2 points and with 206 yards rushing a game. They finished second with 407.6 yards per game, too, with Jackson the favorite to be the league’s MVP in just his second season after throwing an NFL-high 36 touchdown passes and running for 1,206 yards.
Pees and Vrabel, himself a former linebacker who played 14 seasons in the NFL, have been busy working on the challenge of slowing this offense. Creating new defensive schemes isn’t really possible this deep in a season. Pees said the key will be playing the defense they’ve run now for two seasons in Tennessee and give the Titans keys to watch for during the game.
“Eyes and assignments,” Pees said. “Everybody’s got an assignment to do. It’s like option football back in college. You have to do your job. If you try to do somebody else’s job, that’s usually a bad thing.”
Pees has had a defense finish in the top 10 in seven of his 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator, including 2018. The Titans (10-7) just missed that this season, finishing 12th in allowing 20.7 points a game after a couple of high-scoring shootouts with Kansas City and the Saints. Tennessee has allowed 30 or more points only three times all season, going 1-2 in those games.
But the Titans started the season holding their first seven opponents to 20 points or fewer, something they did 11 times, including last week in a 20-13 wild-card win over New England.
Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said it’ll be exciting going against the Ravens’ powerhouse offense to see what the Titans’ defense can really do.
“Dean’s got a couple things up his sleeve,” Casey said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to run our defense. It’s been working for us all year long. … We just got to make sure we execute.”
Safety Kenny Vaccaro said the Titans will have to make sure and keep a handful of defenders around Jackson.
“Anytime you try to get a kill shot, you’ll probably get juked off the screen and end up on “Checkdown” Instagram,” Vaccaro said. “You don’t want to end up on the highlight reels, on ”C’Mon Man” or something like that. You got to break down, be a sound tackler, keep your eyes up, feet moving and even then he still might juke you.”
Pees faced off against current Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman when Baltimore won the 2013 Super Bowl. Roman says Pees has evolved on defense since that game, though the basics remain.
“Just fundamentally sound, play hard, well-coached fundamentally, and just rock-solid defense,” Roman said. “I think that says a lot, and that’s what a lot of people try to become. So, that’s what’s really characterized him over the years.”
The next test comes Saturday night with a berth in the AFC championship game on the line.