Falcons hire Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator

Credit: Assoc

Credit: Assoc

Assistant coaches Gary Emanuel, Ted Monachino and Jon Hoke were fired

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons hired Ryan Nielsen, formerly the co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach for the Saints, as their defensive coordinator Friday.

Nielsen joined the Saints staff in 2017. Since, the Saints have recorded 281 sacks, the second-most in the NFL over that period.

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The Falcons recorded 21 sacks this season, which ranked 31st in the league. The Saints had 48 sacks.

The Falcons also fired defensive line coach Gary Emanuel, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino and secondary coach Jon Hoke.

Nielsen was hired to replace Dean Pees, who retired after the season.

In addition to Nielsen, the Falcons also considered Eagles consultant Vic Fangio, Panthers defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, Steelers linebackers coach Brian Flores, Falcons linebackers coach Frank Bush and Packers passing-game coordinator/defensive backs Jerry Gray.

While the Falcons believe they laid the foundation for a turnaround, Nielsen has a major project on his hands. The defense didn’t finish in the top half of the league in any of the key categories: points allowed (22.7, 23rd), total yards allowed (362.1, 27th), passing yards allowed (231.9, 25th) and rushing yards allowed (130.2, 23rd).

The Saints finished in the top 10 in sacks in five of six seasons. Also, the Saints had a stingy run defense during Nielsen’s time, which was spent with former defensive coordinator, and now head coach, Dennis Allen calling the plays.

The Saints’ run defense didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher in an NFL-record 55 games (regular season and playoffs) from 2017-20. The Saints have finished in the top four in run defense in four of the past five campaigns.

The Saints’ defensive line was anchored by defensive end Cameron Jordan, a long tormentor of the Falcons. He went to five Pro Bowls over Nielsen’s time with the team. Nielsen also has worked with Trey Hendrickson, who left for the Bengals in free agency, and Marcus Davenport.

Nielsen will be a first-time NFL play-caller. He did call the plays during the exhibition season and in practice.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith, at his end-of-the-season press conference, promised a thorough search.

“I think in years past if you were in this situation, you may feel a little rushed,” Smith said. “I think things have seemed to slow down, so we’ll be very mindful of that. I want to talk to a lot of people, I already have talked to a few so far, but we’ll take our time.”

The Falcons ran a 3-4 defense under Pees. The Saints have run a 4-3 defense under Allen.

“You can say that you’re 3-4, but you’ve got to think of how many different front variations that there are,” Smith said. “A lot of the game when you’re playing spread out in 11 (one tight end and one running back with three wide receivers). Whether you’re a true 4-3 or 3-4, you’re playing a lot of four-down fronts.”

Smith pointed to the Baltimore Ravens, who have maintained their 3-4 scheme for decades with a cast of different coordinators.

“We’ll hire the best candidate, but the way that we’ve built, that won’t change,” Smith said.

Nielsen, a native of Simi Valley, California, was hired in New Orleans after the Saints moved on from Bill Johnson after the 2016 season. Johnson was the Falcons’ defensive line coach from 2001-06.

“We brought him through like we did the rest of the coaches we interviewed, and there was something unique about him,” Saints coach Sean Payton told NOLA.com in a May 2017 article. “I think he is an outstanding teacher, very confident. He’s had a real good bloodline of defenses he’s been with even as far back as his playing (days), who was coaching him.”

Nielsen played defensive tackle at USC and was all Pac-10 in 2002.

He has been described as an “intense” coach by some of his former players. He coached Bradley Chubb, who played at Hillgrove High, at N.C. State.

“I think it’s a passion I have for coaching,” Nielsen told NOLA.com after he was hired in May 2017. “I think you have to play defensive line that way, so if you don’t coach that way, you can’t expect your players to be intense and to be passionate about what they’re doing.

“You try to bring it every day and get it to be a working relationship with those guys, and the same intensity and same emotions for coaching the position are all the same. It’s not them and me, it’s us, it’s we together, so that’s an important thing to convey to those guys.”

Here’s a brief bio of Nielsen:

Title: Co-defensive coordinator/defensive line, Saints

Age: 43

NFL coaching experience: Was in the college ranks from 2005-16. He had been with the Saints since 2017.

College ranks: North Carolina State (2013-16), Northern Illinois (2011-12), Tennessee-Martin (2010), Central Connecticut State (2008-09), Mississippi (2005-07) and Idaho (2004) after beginning his coaching career at his alma mater, USC (2002.)

Highlights: The Saints have amassed 42, 49, 51, 45, 46 and 48 sacks since 2017. This season, the Saints finished ranked ninth in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed.

Playing experience: He played at USC and had a cup of coffee with the Eagles and the L.A. Avengers in the Arena Football League.

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