PHOENIX — Heading into his third season, Falcons coach Arthur Smith revamped his defensive coaching staff.
Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired. Defensive line coach Gary Emmanuel, secondary coach Jon Hoke and defensive outside linebacker coach Ted Monachino were not retained.
Ryan Nielsen was hired as the defensive coordinator.
Longtime NFL assistant and former player Jerry Gray was hired as the assistant head coach/defense, and Steve Jackson was named the secondary coach after serving a season as an offensive assistant.
“We have a great defensive staff. Obviously Ryan Neilson is our defensive coordinator, and he will call the defense,” Smith said at the NFL’s owners meeting. “Having Jerry on the staff, he can help me. That’s why we gave him the assistant head coach title. Jerry can also help in the secondary. We have Steve back there.”
Neilson, a defensive line coach by trade, will be in charge of fixing the front. Gray and Jackson will spruce up the secondary. While linebackers coach Frank Bush, who is a holdover, will work on improving the middle of the defense.
“Happy as (expletive) that Frank is still with us,” Smith said.
The mostly new defensive staff must blend together their philosophies to be on the same page when the players start the offseason program April 17.
“Chemistry is important about how those guys all work together,” Smith said. “It’s exciting. I obviously have a lot of trust and history with some of those guys. Jerry, we’re fired up to have him running the back end.”
Gray and Bush are longtime confidantes of Smith. They were instrumental in the early part of his NFL coaching journey. Also, former Falcons offensive coordinate Mike Mularkey is highly trusted by Smith.
“Absolutely, there was a trust there,” Smith said. “I mean Jerry is one of the best teachers that I’ve ever been around in terms of defensive back play.”
Gray played cornerback at Texas and in the NFL. He was a two-time second-team All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl selection. He played for the Rams, Oilers and Buccaneers.
“That goes to his background, not just because he played it at a high level,” Smith said. “But like any subject matter, when you walk into that classroom, from the guys that can really teach, take a complex subject and put it in really simple terms.”
Gray has worked with some of the top defensive backs in the NFL, from Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor to Jaire Alexander.
“(He) understands that it’s not all one-size-fits-all,” Smith said of Gray’s teaching methods. “A lot of times people struggle because they only see the game the way they may have played it. He’s got a wealth of knowledge.”
Also, Smith said that Gray and Bush are independent thinkers.
“They know how to deal with a lot of different personalities,” Smith said. “A lot of different issues and teaching techniques. All we are trying to do is improve our players, improve this team and win. Those are the right guys to do it.”
In addition to the new coaches, the Falcons wanted to add to each level of the defense and have done so in free agency and will continue to add in the draft, which is set for April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Falcons signed defensive tackle David Onyemata and defensive end Calais Campbell along the front of the defense.
“When you think about David and what he can do, he’s versatile, and we can move him around,” general manager Terry Fontenot said. “He can play in some different spots.”
In the linebacker group, the Falcons signed free agents Kaden Elliss and Tae Davis.
“The same thing with Kaden. ... Last year, he played inside ‘backer and he played on the edge,” Fontenot said. “He played outside, and he showed that he could be productive in both areas. We can put him at some different spots.”
The Falcons’ big contract was in the secondary, where they added safety Jessie Bates on a four-year, $64 million deal.
“He can play in the box,” Fontenot said. “He can play deep. We were able to add on each level. We added those players because we feel really good about who they were and what they were going to add to the team.”
Also, one of the interesting signings was cornerback Mike Hughes, a first-round pick if the Vikings in 2018. Gray was with the Vikings from 2018-20.
“Again, we had some overlap with him Jerry Gray, who drafted him and knows him well,” Fontenot said. “He’s a talented player. He’s had some injuries, and yet he’s talented.”
The Falcons believe Hughes is over his injuries and can play at a high level.
“If you put on the tape right now and you see him flying around,” Fontenot said. “The way he competes. ... He’s a versatile player who can play in the slot, he can play (outside). That’s not easy to do that.”
Blending the new coaches with the new players will be key. Also, the Falcons are hoping to have a multiplier effect on the returning players.
They are hoping Onyemata can help make Grady Jarrett and the other players around him better. They also are hoping that Bates has a positive impact on cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Richie Grant.
“We know the kind of leadership that he brings and where we are at (on) the back end with some guys that are in the early part of their career (like) A.J. and Richie,” Smith said. “We think he can really provide a lot of real and authentic leadership to that (meeting) room.”
The Falcons really liked Bates’ playmaking ability and how he studies the game.
“He’s a dynamic playmaker,” Smith said. “The things we’ll ask him to do will really, really benefit our defense.”
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