Some mystery surrounds new Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. After all, he worked behind the scenes in New Orleans since 2017. As a co-defensive coordinator last year, he never called plays. All that was truly known to outsiders was that he trained one of the NFL’s most ferocious defensive lines.
One more thing that’s not a mystery: He can command a room. Nielsen was charismatic and assertive in his introductory press conference Monday, assuring Falcons faithful these days of a feeble pass rush will soon end.
The Falcons have no greater questions than their defensive front. They hired Nielsen to lead their defense because he’s proven himself as a developer and pass-rush maestro. With the NFC South wide open, even modest defensive improvement could vault the Falcons (7-10) into the playoffs.
“It was the right fit,” Nielsen said of his new employer. “Ownership, coach, general manager; we see a lot of things the same. Where this program is going, the organization, and how the guys play. Definitely the right fit and the place I wanted to be.”
He later added: “It was very easy for me, really. Like, when (the Falcons) offered (the job), I thought I’d jump through the phone. So I’m like, I’m in. Let’s go.”
Nielsen, 43, probably couldn’t fit his experience onto a one-page resume. The Falcons are his ninth stop as he’s ascended the ranks. He began as a volunteer coach for USC – the Los Angeles native’s alma mater, where he was coached by Ed Orgeron – and held different roles with Idaho, Ole Miss, Central Connecticut State, UT Martin, Northern Illinois, and Noth Carolina State before landing with New Orleans.
While the Saints were known for quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton, they had a menacing defense during Nielsen’s stint with the team (as Falcons enthusiasts would know). After Nielsen arrived in 2017 as the defensive line coach, New Orleans earned double-digit wins in four consecutive seasons with its defense leading the way.
The Saints had 42 sacks in 2017, tying for seventh in the NFL. They had 49 sacks the next season, bested by only four teams. They ranked third in sacks during 2019 (51), eighth in 2020 (45), eighth in 2021 (46) and fifth this season (48).
During that same stretch, the Falcons never accumulated 40 sacks in one season. In fact, their combined sack total over the past two seasons, 39, still falls short of any single-season total the Saints achieved with Nielsen.
The Saints’ defensive production wasn’t all Nielsen’s doing, of course. Saints coach Dennis Allen was then the defensive coordinator and lauded for his work. The Saints were stacked with defensive linemen like Cam Jordan, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson and Marcus Davenport; each known for a mean streak and extra-physical style.
Nielsen helped develop those players and position them for success. The Saints valued him to the point Payton once stopped Nielsen from becoming Orgeron’s defensive coordinator at LSU. Nielsen received a new contract and was promoted to assistant head coach in January 2021.
From the college ranks to coaching NFL playoff teams, Nielsen explained what he learned during his time in Louisiana.
“When I first got there from college, I was challenged by the players in a good way,” he said. “They wanted to know the reason why. Here’s a guy coming from college, I’d never coached in the NFL before, and all these things. So they challenged the teaching part of it and the relationship part of it.
“That really made me grow to the importance - the cool thing about the National Football League, if you look at college, they’ve got to do class and all these other things. Well, the guys here, it’s just all football. So the amount of information that they can process, and you can coach them, that process is all sped up. And so every meeting was we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this. And then they had success and success sells. Once that happened, then they were all in and the rest is history.”
Jordan, never short on words, tweeted after the Falcons hired Nielsen: “Ryan to Dc job was inevitable. Top tier DL coach in terms of developing pass rush and emphasizing technique on run and gap integrity. Wish him the semi-best as he willingly went to the Failcons … happy-ish for him.”
Nielsen became co-defensive coordinator, alongside Kris Richard, under Allen this past season. Allen continued calling defensive plays, however, so Nielsen has limited experience there. He called the defense in the preseason and practice, but asked about his previous duties Monday, Nielsen opted not to elaborate. “I’m going to stay away from that, but I appreciate the question,” he said. “I’m here, and that’s what I’m excited about going forward and in the future.”
The Falcons instantly felt comfortable with Nielsen, whom they’ve described as a coach naturally on the same wavelength with their staff. It helped Nielsen’s case that he’s worked with Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, who was previously with the Saints’ front office.
“Everything is collaborative,” Fontenot said. “I obviously spent time with him in New Orleans. We have some coaches on the staff that were with him in college, so we know the person he is, the man he is, very excited to have him here. He has a very clear vision of what we have here and how to continue to develop the players here and how to continue to add competition. I’m very excited about Ryan.”
It remains to be seen what a Nielsen defense looks like. He hit all the buzz words Monday: “hard, tough, physical, aggressive.” But he didn’t get into his schematic beliefs, telling reporters they can call his defense, “Let’s just stop people.” He did indicate he wants a defensive identity similar to what coach Arthur Smith has built with his punishing rushing offense.
He also stressed attacking. “Everything we’re going to do, we’re going to attack,” he said. “That’s in all phases of the defense, attack with every position. We want to be going forward and attacking.”
To turn those words into results, Nielsen must revive a moribund pass rush. The Falcons have been preposterously poor in that category for a long time. This year continued the same frustrations: Defensive lineman Grady Jarrett led the team with six quarterback takedowns. Edge rusher Lorenzo Carter, a one-year free agent signing, was second with four sacks. No one else even reached three.
“We’re going to get it going,” Nielsen said, responding to the obvious question. He felt no need to comment further.
Nielson will almost certainly campaign for the Falcons to spend their eighth overall pick on the defense. It’s the team’s third consecutive top-10 selection, and the other two went to offensive skill players (Kyle Pitts, Drake London).
Since 2018, the Falcons have used six first-round picks. Only one was invested in defense (cornerback A.J. Terrell in 2016). They’ve landed intriguing prospects in other rounds, though, of whom Nielsen is familiar.
“That was a lot during the interview process too, learning the roster and defensive personnel,” Nielsen said. “I feel pretty good about where we’re at with that. ... There are some good players here.”
Jarrett and Terrell are the centerpieces, two players considered in the upper tier of their positions. Linebackers Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone and Troy Andersen just finished their rookie seasons (Nielsen noted Andersen’s skill set is a snug fit for “what we want to do”). Ta’Quon Graham is a keeper on the interior defensive line.
Nielsen applauded former defensive coordinator Dean Pees, whose retirement led to Nielsen’s hiring. The Falcons’ defense statistically improved later in the year, allowing 18.7 points per game across the final six contests.
“We don’t just stop and start all over again,” Nielsen said. “We’re going to take what we’ve done well here last couple years, implement some new things, put in some new ideas, and just kind of marry it.”
There will be new faces, some of whom will possibly be accomplished veterans. The team will have over $56 million in cap space, per Spotrac, that will surely be largely invested in the defense. It’s worth mentioning that Davenport and Onyemata are free agents.
Nielsen joined the Falcons in Las Vegas for the East West Shrine Bowl last week. He’s just now settling into his office, meeting other coaches and his players. An important offseason awaits.
“We’ll start talking some football here, coming up on free agency,” Nielsen said. “So we’ve got a lot of stuff going on. We’re just going to allocate the time accordingly and take care of those areas.”
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