On the topic of defensive line play, Pete Jenkins is someone worth listening to. A native of Macon who was all-state at Hawkinsville High, Jenkins coached defensive ends and tackles for decades, mostly at the college level and for the largest portion at LSU. He is considered to be perhaps the most respected defensive-line coach in the game’s history. Sports Illustrated called him nothing less than Nick Saban’s “football guru.”
Among the many with whom Jenkins – who at the age of 81 continues to run his own lineman camp in Thibodaux, Louisiana – has shared his vast wisdom is Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. And what Jenkins had to say about Nielsen might intrigue Falcons fans.
“Oh, man,” Jenkins said, reached last week by phone. “He’s about as good as they come. He’s really good. He does a great job.”
Aside from a two-year run as defensive coordinator at Central Connecticut State – a stint that did produce a Northeast Conference championship and a top-25 defense at the FCS level – Nielsen never has been a solo defensive coordinator. (Last year with the Saints, he shared the title with Kris Richard, his college teammate at USC.) Whether Nielsen can effectively organize a defense when he’s game-planning for opponents a few tiers above Albany and Robert Morris (no offense to supporters of the Great Danes and Colonials) will be revealed in the months ahead.
But Falcons coach Arthur Smith and his team can take confidence from this much with Nielsen on the staff – the man can coach a defensive line. And for the Falcons, whose defensive-line play of late has not made eyes pop out of sockets, that is not a small consideration.
“I think of teaching techniques and mixing good discipline and accountability and things like that,” Jenkins said. “I just think he’s one of the best around, and I’ve got about six or seven guys that I work with that are D-line coaches in the league. I think he’s very special. I do, I really do.”
You don’t have to take Jenkins’ word. Look at Nielsen’s work with the Saints. Over his six years with New Orleans, the Saints ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks each season. They were in the top five in run defense four of the six years. They went an NFL-record 55 games (regular season and postseason) without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Before New Orleans, Nielsen made his name at N.C. State, developing four defensive linemen who were all selected in the first four rounds of the 2018 NFL draft as part of the largest draft class in Wolfpack history.
Jenkins called Nielsen smart and motivated and made an interesting (to me, at least) observation about his protégé. Just like players, he said, some coaches are better at coaching pass rush and others the run game.
“It’s kind of rare to have a guy that can do both of those things with equal ease,” Jenkins said. “And he’s one of those guys.”
There may be no better example of Nielsen’s expertise than new Falcons defensive tackle David Onyemata, who is joining Nielsen from the Saints. Onyemata grew up in Nigeria and enrolled at the University of Manitoba to study environmental science. Looking to fill his free time, he joined the football team despite having never played the game before. He learned quickly, becoming one of the better players in Canadian college football and then getting drafted by New Orleans in the fourth round in 2016, a year before Nielsen was hired by the Saints.
In their six seasons together, Onyemata developed into a solid pro, a full-time starter over the past four seasons averaging 35.3 tackles and 12 quarterback hits per season in that span. Primary credit goes to Onyemata, who signed a three-year, $35 million contract with the Falcons. But Nielsen deserves his share, too.
“He’s come a long, long way,” Jenkins said of Onyemata. “I think Ryan’s done a great job developing him. He’s not the only one.”
Undoubtedly, Nielsen’s first priority will be fixing a defense that last season finished 27th in the league in total defense and 25th in turnover percentage (percentage of drives ending in turnovers) and 31st in third-down defense. But Nielsen clearly wants to balance running the defense with tutoring the defensive line (along with Lanier Goethie, who was promoted in February to defensive front specialist after two years as a defensive assistant).
“We’ve talked at length about (the balance), and he’s given it a great deal of thought, how he can give both of those things the amount of time and the amount of effort that he feels like they need,” Jenkins said.
Last week at the team’s minicamp, Smith seemed to make it clear that he wants Nielsen to fill both roles.
“He’s a good teacher,” Smith said. “That’s why we brought him here.”
Smith’s defensive line could use some instruction. Consider what the Falcons did while Nielsen was in New Orleans – over the same six-year period, they ranked in the bottom third of the league in sacks five times (including second to last in 2022 and last in 2021) and in the top 10 in run defense twice.
Especially on the line, Nielsen will have more to work with than former defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who retired after two years with the Falcons at the end of a 50-year career. Besides Onyemata, general manager Terry Fontenot also signed veteran defensive end Calais Campbell (one year, $7 million) and linebackers Kaden Elliss (three years, $21.5 million) and Bud Dupree (one year, $3 million), who also can bring pressure.
Campbell, a 15-year veteran being counted on for leadership and production, already has warmed to Nielsen, calling him a stickler about the small details. After one of last week’s minicamp practices, Campbell said that he went through a drill and felt good about it, only to have Nielsen make a slight tweak.
After that, “I felt a whole lot better,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Whew, I like that.’ That’s really good coaching, that he can see that and help me to see it and feel it myself. Being my 16th year, I didn’t really experience that too often, but that’s a good feeling.”
If Nielsen can replicate moments like that, the good feeling won’t just be Campbell’s.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com