It’s on Ryan Nielsen to make Falcons defense better than its parts

Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, center, instructs players during OTAs at the Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Miguel Martinez /The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, center, instructs players during OTAs at the Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Miguel Martinez /The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Falcons will be better on defense in 2023. That’s not a wisecrack about how they couldn’t be much worse. The Falcons have more credible defenders on the roster now. They’ll have more depth, which is important for NFL teams that use so many guys.

I’m skeptical that the Falcons will field a good defense in 2023. With the notable exception of safety Jessie Bates III, none of the free agents they signed were top-tier players in their prime. Most of the draft capital has been spent on offense. The list of defensive holdovers is headlined by Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell and ... well, that’s it.

That’s where Arthur Smith’s new-look defensive staff comes in. For the Falcons to have a good defense, those assistants are going to help the unit become better than the sum of its parts. Ryan Nielsen is the architect of that plan.

We can’t be sure what kind of defense Nielsen will run because he’s never called plays as an NFL coordinator. I’m certain he has no calls that can overcome a lack of pressure on the quarterback, an inability to cover receivers and few turnover chances created. The Falcons haven’t been consistently good at those things since Mike Smith was coach, save for a one-off year with Dan Quinn in 2017.

The Falcons have been an offensive-focused team for going on 15 years. Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees used to say he wanted to change that mentality. Pees retired after last season. To replace Pees, Arthur Smith hired Nielsen away from the Saints. Inside linebackers coach Frank Bush is the only top assistant retained from 2022.

“The defensive staff has really meshed well together,” Smith said after a recent training camp practice. “That’s what you want. You don’t want all these big egos and jockeying (for credit). We’re just trying to get better and do what’s best for this team and give us the best chance to win, and those guys are doing that.

“I’ve been very pleased with the whole defensive staff.”

Every coach in the league is pleased with everything at this time of the year. Now is the time for optimism. There’s no evidence that things won’t work out, so I don’t blame players and coaches for believing that they will. We’ll find out if Smith’s positive feelings about his defensive staff continue once the Falcons start playing real games in September.

The first task was for players and coaches to get acclimated with each other. Nielsen worked with David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Elliss in New Orleans. Bush has three linebackers who were part of the 2022 depth chart. Otherwise, it’s new coaches working with new players across the defense.

Nielsen said offseason practices were the time when players and coaches “got to know each other: personalities, relationships, things like that.” He said players showed up to camp with an idea of what kind of defense the Falcons want to be.

“All we are focusing on right now is fundamental and technique,” he said. “Understand your job and where you fit in the scheme.”

There are a few sure things for the defense. Jarrett will provide his usual disruptive play in the middle of the line. Terrell will be the best coverage man in the secondary. Bates will add some needed thump on the back end.

Other elements of the defense are less certain. Edge rusher Bud Dupree has to match his production to his physical talent. Cornerback Jeff Okaduh is trying to revive his career after the Lions gave up on him three seasons after he was selected No. 3 overall in the draft. Calais Campbell, a 16th-year pro, began camp on the injured list.

If the Falcons can get the most out of those players, then it’s likely their defense will be better than I think.

“We’ve got to get that talent to play together, and that’s the biggest thing,” Nielsen said.

The Falcons have a long way to go. Pees made the case that his group was getting good by the end of last season, but I didn’t see it. The Falcons did OK against some middling offensive teams. They were better against the run, yet still vulnerable against the pass.

The run defense should be good again. The pass coverage might be better this year, and that usually helps the pass rush. But the Falcons haven’t had consistent pressure off the edge in a long time. Now they are depending on players who’ve never done it consistently or haven’t in a while.

It’s on Nielsen to put all the pieces together. Falcons players have raved about his intensity.

“When you walk in the (defensive meeting) room, the first thing you see on the board is ‘attack and aggressive,’” defensive back Dee Alford said. “He wants everything to be physical, and you can tell with the play-calling. ‘D-line’: real physical. Linebackers: physical. Secondary, we are physical and hands-on.

“That’s the type of mindset that he brings into the defense, and it shows on the field when we go out and practice.”

We’ll see if it shows when the Falcons go out and play games. They’ll be better on defense because of the veterans they’ve added. To be good, the new-look staff will have to coach them up.

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