Falcons’ Ryan Nielsen putting together the team’s defense

FLOWERY BRANCH — Ryan Nielsen, the Falcons’ new defensive coordinator, is putting his stamp on the defense this offseason.

A former defensive line coach for the Saints, Nielsen has been active in the drills with an in-your-face coaching style.

“Just the passion, the coaching and the fundamentals that we are teaching and that we truly believe in what we are doing,” Nielsen said. “I think that it needs to come across to the players to give them confidence.”

Nielsen believes the players will embrace that style.

“They see how it works and things like that,” Nielsen said. “Again, it’s just the passion. You have to coach with a passion. That’s just how I am. That’s (what) I believe.”

Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees, a veteran NFL coordinator, had a more statesman-like approach to coaching and teaching. He was a visitor at OTAs on Wednesday.

But for Nielsen, who played defensive tackle at USC from 1997-2001 under Ed Orgeron, he has to do it his way.

“It’s been positive,” Nielsen said. “(There have) been some really good conversations about the things that we are doing. It’s been really good. There hasn’t been a negative thing the whole time. I think the guys are excited. They are working hard, they really are.”

He noted that outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji, defensive tackle David Onyemata and rookie defensive end Zach Harrison have put in a lot of good offseason work.

He also noted that linebackers Nate Landman, Kaden Elliss, Troy Andersen, Dorian Etheridge and Tae Davis have had “good things that have happened.”

The Falcons plan to play multiple defensive schemes under Nielsen. They played a 3-4 defensive scheme under Pees. The Saints ran a 4-3 scheme under coach Dennis Allen, who was Sean Payton’s defensive coordinator from 2015-21.

Nielsen replaced former Falcons assistant coach Bill Johnson as the Saints defensive line coach in 2017. He was the assistant head coach/defensive line in 2021 and the co-defensive coordinator/defensive line in 2022.

With the signing of Onyemata, the Falcons have two defensive tackles to play the 4-3, the other being Grady Jarrett. Also, with the signings of Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree and drafting Harrison, coupled with returnees Lorenzo Carter and Ogundeji, they have players who could slide in and out of 3-4 to 4-3 with ease.

Nielsen has been impressed with Jarrett.

“He’s been great,” Nielsen said. “Love talking to him. What he sees and how he sees things. He’s been really good. He’s been good for David. Both of those guys working together.”

The Falcons also are revamping the secondary, with the signing of safety Jessie Bates III as the key move.

“This is a lot with him,” Nielsen said. “Playmaking ability. Leadership. He’s a great teammate. That combination of things right there is like, we have to have this guy on our football team. It will be good just for everybody.”

The Falcons value that Bates played at a high level on the some bad Cincinnati teams and helped them transform into a Super Bowl unit.

“Our goal here is to win Super Bowls,” Nielsen said. “He’s been there, and he’s still hungry. (He) knows how to get there, now, let’s win it. He can share that knowledge not only with the coaches, but with the players in the locker room. It’s a huge advantage.”

Bates will be charged with keeping the unit organized.

“Game planning, meeting, getting guys together, being together,” Falcons assistant head coach Jerry Gray said. “That’s critical when you’re in the NFL. A lot of guys don’t understand the extra time that you need to be really good. You could see it. They were really good on defense in Cincinnati, and we want guys like that on our team.”

The Falcons have several candidates for the right cornerback and nickel back spots, with Jeff Okudah and Mike Hughes as the front-runners. Also, rookie Clark Phillips III could be in the mix.

“I would just say that the kind of defense that we are going to be playing, the windows are going to be tighter,” Okudah said. “With our (defensive) line getting to the quarterback, the ball is going to be coming out. The ball could get tipped. (There could be) some overthrows. With that being said, when you get those kind of plays, you have to take advantage of them.”

At safety, with Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant, Nielsen will have some opportunities to play a “Big Nickel” package with three safeties.

“I don’t want to get into scheme things, but there’s a million different ways to do it,” Nielsen said. “Everybody is doing it. ... Yes, we have a deep secondary. Maybe you’ll see nine DBs on the field sometimes, I don’t know.”

Cover 9?

“Cover 9, 11, 33,” Nielsen said. “Whatever you guys want to call it.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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