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Five things to know about new Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen

For starters, he's a coach who speaks the same language as Arthur Smith. They want to coach some "big, nasty" linemen at the line of scrimmage. 


The Falcons have officially named Ryan Nielsen the organization's next defensive coordinator after Dean Pees retired at the conclusion of the 2022 season. Nielsen has been with the Saints organization since 2017. He most recently served as New Orleans defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator in 2022.

But what else is there to learn about the Falcons newest defensive coordinator? Here are five things to take note of:

1. The Saints made moves to keep Nielsen

At the beginning of 2021, it was reported that Nielsen was offered the defensive coordinator position at LSU. Having worked with then-Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron when the two were coaching at Ole Miss, it looked like the stars were aligning for Nielson to return to the college coaching ranks.

However, the Saints had a say and they weren't yet willing to have Nielson leave, even if it was for Baton Rouge.

So, what did the Saints do? They gave him a new deal, one that included a three-year contract extension and the title of associate head coach, which was a title left vacant in New Orleans when Dan Campbell was hired on to be the Lions next head coach.

By the 2022 season, Nielsen had again been promoted to co-defensive coordinator.

2. The Cam Jordan whisperer

Falcons fans know this name. They've heard this name. No one has sacked Matt Ryan more than the man who claims this name. No other player's success coincides with Nielsen's years in New Orleans quite like that of Cam Jordan.

Through six seasons working as the Saints defensive line coach, Nielsen worked alongside Jordan to help the defensive lineman to five Pro Bowls, to second-team All-Pro status twice and to becoming the first defensive lineman in Saints history to earn first-team All-Pro honors.

Jordan wished Nielsen well in his new role with the Falcons on Friday... well... sorta kinda-ish.

3. The Trey Hendrickson developer

Like Jordan, Nielsen's work with Hendrickson shouldn't go unnoticed, either. The year Nielsen joined the Saints staff was the year New Orleans drafted Hendrickson with the 103rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

After three so-so years in the league, Hendrickson's develop began to take shape as the former third round pick exploded onto the scene in 2020 with 13.5 sacks and 22 solo tackles.

Some viewed that year as an outlier for Hendrickson. Not Nielsen. He reportedly felt that this is what Hendrickson could be even back during training camp of 2018. He just needed a little "fine tuning" in his body composition, something Hendrickson did at the request of Nielsen.

According to The Ringer, it's Nielsen who Hendrickson credits for getting him through some tough moments in New Orleans and turning him into one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market in 2021.

Hendrickson would go on to sign a four-year, $60 million contract with the Bengals. In his first season in Cincinnati Hendrickson would live up to that contract, posting a career-high in sacks (14) and forced fumbles (three).

It may go unnoticed but Nielsen played a major role in Hendrickson's upbringing in the league.

4. Nielsen to bring in his own guys

As of now, you likely already know the Falcons parted ways with defensive line coach Gary Emanuel, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino and secondary coach Jon Hoke.

These moves usher out the bulk of the defensive staff under Dean Pees and ushers in a new chapter of defensive coaching in Atlanta. Who backfills these positions will be something to keep an eye on, and with the Falcons coaching staff heading to Las Vegas to coach in the East-West Shrine Bowl next week, the Falcons could move quickly to find their new coaches, particularly if Nielsen has a few coaches already in mind.

The only position coach rollover from Pees' staff to Nielsen's (at this point) is inside linebackers coach Frank Bush, who took over the defensive play calling for Atlanta when Pees was taken to the hospital in New Orleans after a collision with a player during pregame warmups.


This new look for the defensive staff could also usher in a more traditional usage of a four-down front under Nielsen. His defensive lines in New Orleans were notorious run-stoppers in this 4-3 look throughout his years with the organization.

The Falcons will have opportunities to build up this defense in free agency and the draft to fit what Nielsen is hoping to establish in Atlanta. Though it should be noted that the Falcons have been consistently building a hybrid defense for the last two years. Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot said earlier in January that a new defensive coordinator wouldn't change that hybrid model too much.

"You can say that you're 3-4, but you've got to think of how many different front variations there are. A lot of the game you're playing spread out in 11, whether you're a true 4-3 or 3-4, you're playing a lot of four down fronts," Smith said. "So, whether you have the hybrid guys that we do or outside linebackers that are essentially defensive ends in four down fronts, that kind of gets overstated sometimes. Structurally, it's really about being flexible ... when you are building that hybrid model you're not looking for an overhaul, we've been building something here."

Fontenot added his two cents: "It's not like we're bringing in a new visionary of the defense and he's going to have a whole different (scheme). Arthur really knows what he's looking for and he'll be strategic in that. When we signed and when we drafted players, we weren't prisoners of the moment... we're drafting players who can be multiple and that fit what we're looking for."

5. Nielsen ultimately fits the Arthur Smith coaching blueprint

If there's something Smith loves as much as anything it's hard-nose, down-right-dirty, sock-you-in-the-mouth play at the line of scrimmage. Games are won and lost in the trenches, according to Smith.

As a former defensive lineman at USC in the late-90s/early-2000s (i.e. before another USC alum with a Falcons connection - cough, cough Drake London - was born), Nielsen speaks the same language as Smith. Need we remind you Smith was an offensive lineman at UNC in the early 2000s?

When asked about Nielsen's coaching style, Saints defensive lineman Carl Granderson told The Athletic in 2021 that it's pretty hardcore.

"He focuses and is big on technique and effort. He coaches pretty hard," Larry Holder reported Granderson saying about Nielsen. "He wants us to be big, nasty d-linemen so we can play out there and destroy people."

Granderson continued: "You have to have tough skin in order to play d-line for the New Orleans Saints."

Sounds familiar to that of the expectation Smith sets for the offensive line in Atlanta, no?

So, there you have it: A former offensive lineman is calling plays for the offense and a former defensive lineman is calling plays for the defense. Let's just say we should all plan for the intensity at the line of scrimmage to be kicked up a notch when the pads go on in August.

Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos of our rookies from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.


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