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Bringin' the juice: Jeff Ulbrich's approach helping Falcons defense turn around

Get to know more about the Falcons' fiery defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich and how he pulls from his days as a player to lead his defense 

They call him "Brick."

Within the walls of the Atlanta Falcons' training facility, if you ask any player or member of the coaching staff about defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, they'll first talk about the so-called "juice" he brings day in and out.

Ulbrich has long been praised for being one of the best linebackers coaches in the NFL by many and after Raheem Morris took over as interim head coach, he was promoted to the coordinator role. And since that move was made, the Falcons are 4-2 and playing significantly better on defense.

It's the connection Ulbrich is able to make with his players as to why he's so respected. That stems from the fact that he played in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers from 2000-09. He was a third-round draft pick in 2000 out of Hawaii.

In order to play for one specific team for that amount of time, you have to be one of two things: Really talented or incredibly consistent. Ulbrich was the latter of the two. He filled several roles during his time as a player from a starting linebacker to a reserve and a key special teams player. During that time, he saw firsthand the best way for a coach to get the most out of a player. Ulbrich recorded 488 tackles, six forced fumbles, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions during his professional career.

That's why he's one of the most relatable coaches the Falcons have on their staff and a trait that makes him invaluable. The 43-year-old takes pride in bringing his experience as a player to the meeting rooms and on the practice field.

"It gives me a unique perspective in that I've been in their shoes and I've walked the walk with them and understand where they are coming from," Ulbrich said. "Sometimes I think a coach that's played he understands the gray that exists in our game. Sometimes we get on a chalkboard and it looks really good and it feels good but from a player's perspective, sometimes there's a disconnect. Hopefully people would say that I try to bridge that gap between the player and the coach and the gray that exists between."  

When Dan Quinn was hired as the Falcons' head coach in 2015, he hired Ulbrich to be his linebackers coach. Quinn and Ulbrich first met when Quinn was the defensive quality control coach for the 49ers in 2001. They crossed paths again later on after Ulbrich retired and decided to go into the coaching profession. His first job as a coach was on Pete Carroll's staff in Seattle as assistant special teams coach. Quinn was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks' at the time.

Ulbrich impressed Quinn so much that when it was his turn to call the shots in terms of building his coaching staff, he called Ulbrich and offered him the job.

Since that moment, Ulbrich has consistently gotten the most of his players.

Some of Atlanta's best defenders over the last five years have come from his position room. Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Foye Oluokun are a few that come to mind. Jones, selected as a second-round pick in 2016, has already been to a Pro Bowl. Oluokun, a sixth-round pick in 2018, was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week and will likely make the Pro Bowl following this season. Campbell, a fourth-round pick in Jones' draft class, went on to sign a significant one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason after becoming a starter and leading the Falcons in tackles in the 2018-19 seasons.

Those three players and the careers they've had since being coached by Ulbrich show he's clearly getting to his players. He has his own way of doing things and it's appreciated by those who work with him on a regular basis. 

"I like that he keeps me accountable, that's kind of how my father raised me," Oluokun said. "I like when I'm not doing something well he will come up and tell me about it but he's encouraging saying he knows the potential of where I can get to and just having a coach having that confidence in me I don't want to let him down when he says that."

Falcons secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. is new to Atlanta and within a short period of time of working with Ulbrich, he's been impressed with his leadership. Whitt says the way Ulbrich always looks at things from a "positive standpoint" is refreshing and motivating to those around him.

"I think that rubs off on the players," Whitt said. "He's the type of guy that feels that no matter the situation, we're going to overcome it."

The Falcons certainly have overcome a rough start to the season. Quinn was fired after the Falcons started 0-5 on the year. Atlanta was struggling in a lot of areas defensively and Ulbrich's message never changed while the noise outside the building was getting louder.

That message was simple: We just need to play better.

That's how Ulbrich would respond when reporters asked what was at the crux of the Falcons' defensive problems at the beginning of the season. He felt confident in the talent he had in his room and throughout the entire defense and truly believed the team didn't need to re-invent the wheel. It was simple and since he's taken the reigns on defense, his unit has responded in a big way.

The Falcons rank No. 2 in forced fumbles, No. 6 against the run, No. 17 in points allowed per game and No. 18 in sacks. The only area the team ranks in the bottom five in the league is against the pass where they are No. 31 in the NFL in terms of passing yards allowed per game. They've gone from the 27th-ranked unit in pass defense adjusted value over average (DVOA) to No. 5 since Week 10. Atlanta also ranks No. 3 in total defense DVOA since Week 10 as well where they were previously ranked No. 18.

Sitting at 4-7 with five games to go in the regular season, Ulbrich's defense will have to continue to play like they did against the Raiders to give the Falcons a chance to make a postseason run. Atlanta is coming off their best defensive performance of the year when they wreaked havoc on the Las Vegas Raiders and won 43-6 and caused five turnovers.

Ulbrich isn't interested in talking about his future in terms of if he wants to be a head coach or anything beyond the role he is in now. He's solely concentrated on helping the Falcons stack some wins and if he continues to do that, he could very well be someone who could be considered to be a potential head coach candidate down the road.  

But for right now, the Falcons need their "juice" man and Morris to keep leading the way they are because it's working. 

"You talk about the ultimate juice in your football team," Morris said of Ulbrich. "You talk about authentic energy; you're talking about a guy that can absolutely light up a room when he comes in it. He is a former player that knows what it's like to be in the trenches, so he's sensitive to his guys in that way. He can also give them a type of compassion and a type of learning and a type of development that you can't get unless you play this game. So, those are the things that are really special about Jeff Ulbrich and some of the things that he brings to the table that a lot of coaches can't bring and then some of the former players can't articulate. He has a special unique way about himself that allows him to do that."

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