OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees insists he doesn't have much familiarity with the New England Patriots anymore because it's been five years since he was an assistant in New England. With the amount of injuries and changes on the Ravens' defense this season, there are times you have to wonder how much familiarity Pees has with his own players.
In what has been a masterful job, Pees has guided the Ravens back to being a top-10 defense for the first time since 2011, and he's done so with creativity, practice-squad players and lots of Band-Aids. The Ravens are headed to Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game in New England because of Pees' ability to keep offenses out of the end zone despite sending out a new cast of defenders almost every week.
Consider the challenges that Pees has faced this season:
The Ravens have had 11 different starting lineups in 16 regular-season games. The longest stretch a starting lineup remained intact was three weeks.
Jimmy Smith, the team's top cornerback, was lost for the last nine games because of a season-ending foot injury, and Haloti Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, was suspended for the final month of the regular season after violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
The Ravens went through seven starting cornerbacks because of injuries and poor play, and they rotated four starting safeties throughout the season. Rashaan Melvin, who had been on two practice squads this season and wasn't on an NFL roster for five weeks this season, started at cornerback in the first round of the playoffs.
The top two picks of the 2013 draft (safety Matt Elam and linebacker Arthur Brown) had reduced roles this season because of their struggles, and three of the top four defensive players drafted this season (defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, safety Terrence Brooks and defensive end Brent Urban) missed a total of 26 games because of injuries.
This makes the Ravens' success on defense all that much more remarkable. Only five teams allowed fewer points, no running back ran for 100 yards and only one defense got to the quarterback more often. The Ravens' defense finished No. 8 overall, its best finish since ranking No. 3 in 2011.
"We’ve been through so many different players, and Dean has done a really tremendous job of tailoring the scheme toward what guys can do well," coach John Harbaugh said. "We don’t really look like the same defense every week in a lot of different ways. It’s not like we revamp everything we do, but he’s always going to give an opponent something different that they’re maybe not expecting to help guys play certain situations."
When it comes to defensive coordinators, Ravens fans often talk about Marvin Lewis and Rex Ryan in reverence. But this has been one of the more impressive coaching jobs on the defensive side of the ball.
The defense has had its share of hiccups, from A.J. Green's 77-yard winning touchdown in Week 1 to the six touchdown passes allowed to Ben Roethlisberger in Week 9 to Philip Rivers' 80-yard fourth-quarter winning drive in Week 13. But the Ravens' defense has been the strength of the team down the stretch, giving up two touchdowns in the last 19 quarters.
On Saturday, Pees goes against a Patriots team that he's schemed against five times since leaving New England. He was with the Patriots from 2004 to 2009, serving the last four years as defensive coordinator.
"At this point in time, I don't think I know them as well as everybody thinks I know them," Pees said. "I've been gone for five years. There are two guys on the defense that were there when I was there -- [Vince] Wilfork and [Rob] Ninkovich. The rest of the defense is different [and] every year the offense is different. ... People talk about my familiarity. It's just the fact I know Coach [Bill] Belichick and his coaching staff. Half of those guys are gone. It's been so far removed, it's different."