As roles increase, Falcons assistant Jeff Ulbrich remains in the moment

Jeff Ulbrich’s progression has placed him on a path where he could become a defensive coordinator or a head coach in the coming seasons.

That is if he wants to pursue that route.

Entering his sixth season as the Falcons’ linebackers coach, he added an assistant head coach title to his resume this offseason. Having played linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers from 2000-09, Ulbrich is able to relate to what his players goes through on a daily basis. Even more so, Ulbrich’s ability to communicate instructions has stood out among his position group.

Last year, he was involved in play-calling, which proved to be the beginning step of a turnaround process that led the Falcons from a 1-7 start to a 6-2 finish. And as an assistant head coach, he’s now tasked with meeting with players at other positions, too.

Ulbrich was asked if he has aspirations to become a defensive coordinator or head coach one day. Much like he was as a player, Ulbrich said he’s not looking too far down the road. He doesn’t even have an agent to show him what opportunities might be on the horizon. Staying in the moment has been a big part of why he’s been an effective coach. Perhaps he’ll take that step one day.

It’s just not something on his mind at the present time.

“I honestly don’t look at it that way,” Ulbrich said. “I’m not going to say I have any wisdom or intelligence, but I do know it’s rare to find something in life that you love to do. If that’s what the future holds, that’s what the future holds. All I know is whatever I’m asked to do, right now, I’m going to kick ass and have a blast doing it.”

If he ever becomes a defensive coordinator -- again, if he chooses that route -- Ulbrich will have another year of experience with calling plays. When the Falcons turned their season around in 2019, specifically on defense, it came with Ulbrich calling plays on first and second downs, with Raheem Morris calling plays on third downs and in two-minute situations.

Even with Morris assuming defensive coordinator duties this year, the Falcons will keep that same approach when it comes to the defensive play-calling. Ulbrich said last year’s setup allowed the two to focus on specific areas of the game plan. For instance, as Morris was in the process of calling a third-down play, Ulbrich would start anticipating his first-down call in the event the opposing offense converted.

“I know a lot of people can’t do it because in order to do it there’s got to be this high level of trust between people,” Ulbrich said. “Some people want all the reins. But we shared duties, with us both able to compartmentalize our roles. Third down went from one of our areas we really struggled in the first eight to one of our strengths in the back eight. That was a pure byproduct of (Morris) having the opportunity to focus in on that.”

In the Falcons’ first eight games of the 2019 season, they ranked last in the NFL by allowing teams to convert 53 percent of their third-down chances. Over the final eight games, the Falcons jumped to first in the NFL as offenses only converted 38 percent of their third-down plays.

Given the defensive success over the latter half of last season, not much is expected to change when it comes to the basics of the defensive game plan. Ulbrich did say there will be some new wrinkles to improve what the defense does best.

But one of the most important takeaways Ulbrich learned last season was not to overload the players with too much information to process on a play-by-play basis. Early on last season, that may have been the case. By the end of the year, Ulbrich said the coaching staff had adjusted accordingly.

“We have to really be cognizant of what we ask our players to do,” Ulbrich said. “On the forefront of our minds, (we should) ask them to do the things they do well. We adapt to them, they don’t adapt to us. I think that’s kind of where we ended the season.”

Already, rookie linebacker Mykal Walker has taken a liking to his new position coach. Thus far, Walker has been floored with the way Ulbrich has taught the Falcons’ scheme. Walker said Ulbrich’s teaching methods have helped speed his transition from college ball to the NFL.

“The biggest thing is our coach,” Walker said. “It all starts with ‘Brich. The way he taught us months ago when we were doing these virtual meetings. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, this is the play, this is what you do.’ He’d teach us the scheme. So now if you know what this scheme is, you can apply that principle to every call. I think we almost think the same way. For me to pick up plays, I try to combine them as much as possible. I think ‘Brich does the same thing. He’s done a really good job of teaching me the scheme and now I can come out here and play fast.”

For four of Ulbrich’s 10 years with the 49ers, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was an assistant on the staff, which is how they first connected. In 2010, which marked Quinn’s second season as a defensive line coach with the Seattle Seahawks, he recommended to Pete Carroll that he hire Ulbrich as an assistant special-teams coach. After two seasons with the Seahawks, Ulbrich became UCLA’s linebackers and special-teams coach from 2012-14, before rejoining Quinn with the Falcons in 2015.

Quinn long has been impressed not only with Ulbrich’s football knowledge, but with how he is able to communicate his insight with the players.

“He’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever been around,” Quinn said. “He’s got an ability to connect with different kinds of players. It’s the connection he’ll make and the lengths he’ll take to go to help develop a player and get their game right. It goes so much deeper than coaching. It’s his way to give back to the game he played professionally for 10 years. He’s at the very top of my list of teaching.”

At its core, teaching football is what Ulbrich enjoys the most. And in the process, he’s carved out a great career that has involved additional responsibilities over the past two years. Based on reputation alone, Ulbrich is someone who easily could have been pried away for a promotional opportunity by now.

But ever-present and living in the moment, Ulbrich isn’t yet searching for such a promotional opportunity. If it happens, it will happen. For now, he’s thrilled simply to coach the position he spent 10 years in the NFL playing.

“It’s been a recipe, especially in my time here, to love what I’m doing,” Ulbrich said. “I love getting up in the morning to go to work.”