LAS VEGAS — The Atlanta Falcons hired Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator on Friday, separating him from his biggest rival after he spent last season as the New Orleans Saints’ co-defensive coordinator.
Nielsen, 43, spent the past six seasons with the Saints, where he was defensive line coach all six years and added the title of assistant head coach in 2021 and co-defensive coordinator last season.
Since 2017, the Saints have recorded 281 sacks, the second-most in the NFL over that span, and have finished in the top four in run defense in four of the past five seasons.
The Falcons also fired three defensive coaches Friday: line coach Gary Emanuel, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino and high school coach Jon Hoke.
Nielsen is not in Las Vegas with the Falcons staff currently, as Atlanta is training at the East-West Shrine Bowl. Linebackers coach Frank Bush is Atlanta’s defensive coordinator in the East-West game.
The Falcons needed a new defensive coordinator after Dean Pees, the oldest defensive coordinator in the NFL last season at 73, decided to retire for the third time in his career to spend more time with his family, among other things.
Pees laid the foundation for Atlanta’s defense, both in the style they want to run and the culture they need to infuse throughout the roster.
“It was a different system than what they had,” Pees said. “So you had to get them to buy.”
The Falcons also had a young defense and they gave up all but two starters from the 2020 team: defensive tackle. grady jarrett and corner A. J. Terrell — in the middle of last season. While Atlanta finished 23rd in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed in 2022, there were gains towards the end of the year.
The Falcons have allowed 19+ points once in their last six games and 350+ yards in one game during the second half of the season (351 vs. Pittsburgh) after allowing 350+ yards in six of Atlanta’s first eight games. .
After the season, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said the franchise wanted to talk to a multitude of potential candidates before making a decision, but also wanted to focus on flexibility with whoever it brought in.
“When you’re building that hybrid model, you’re not looking for an overhaul,” Smith said. “We’ve been building something here.”
He didn’t limit his search, as he interviewed candidates with previous experience as a defensive coordinator, previous experience as a head coach, and those who haven’t been full-time solo defensive coordinators.
When Smith hired Pees, he wanted an experienced player who could also serve as a mentor for a first-time head coach to lean on. At Pees, Smith had that.
Where they are now, Smith said, is different than it was two seasons ago. By the end of 2022, the Falcons had only five defensive players left on the previous regime’s roster: Jarrett, Terrell, linebacker. Mykal Walkercornerback isaiah oliver and security jaylinn hawkins. Oliver is a free agent this offseason and both Walker and Hawkins are in the final years of their contracts.
Smith compared what he hoped Atlanta could do to the Baltimore Ravens, who have had multiple defensive coordinators over the years and made tweaks to their scheme, but not to the type of players they were looking for or the vision they had for the game. general plan. of the defense
“The way we’ve built,” Smith said. “That won’t change.”
While with the Saints, Nielsen helped oversee the rise of the stalwart defensive end. cameron jordanwho was named First Team All-Pro in 2017 and Second Team in 2018 and 2019.
Jordan, for his part, took to Twitter to bid farewell to Nielsen and praise his strength in “developing (a) quick passing and emphasizing technique on run and gap integrity.”
Nielsen grew up in Southern California and then went to college at USC as a defensive tackle and later became a volunteer assistant coach.
He spent the first 15 years of his coaching career in college working the defensive line at every stop, as well as being defensive coordinator at Central Connecticut State in 2008 and 2009 and co-defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois in 2012.