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How the Falcons defensive depth has taken the "next man up" cliché to heart, put action behind it

Nate Landman, Tre Flowers stepping up and stepping in for Atlanta early in 2023. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The phrase "next man up" is an old sports cliché, but it's an integral part to any football team. The Falcons live by this very mentality, too.

When inside linebacker Troy Andersen entered concussion protocol after Atlanta's Week 1 win over Carolina, second-year player Nate Landman stepped up to make the first start of his career. The drop off was hardly discernible.

It's something assistant coach/defense Jerry Gray took note of as he reflected on Sunday's game.

"He was just hitting guys, and I was like, 'Woah, that's amazing.' That's what you want," Gray said. "When you've got guys like that... and that's your 12th, 13th or 14th player, those guys are going to help you down the road."

But just how do the Falcons instill a next-man-up mindset?

That can be answered with another cliché: Practice makes perfect. That preparation began in OTAs. It followed the Falcons into training camp and continues into the regular season. The Falcons' defensive training staff ensures that players from the top of the depth chart to practice players receive quality reps in practice.

"Whoever is on offense, that doesn't matter. These are your reps, and what you do with those reps are the important things," Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said. "It's how did you perform, execute and play within those."

Landman recorded four total tackles in the win over the Green Bay Packers Sunday, and the Falcons defense came away with a few key stops much like they did in Week 1 when they featured Andersen. One that comes to mind is a stop by Landman in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game. It was a third-and-one stop that set up the Falcons would-be, game-changing drive to seal the win.

Leading up to Landman's first start, and just the ninth game of his career, he leaned on Andersen. The two began their professional journeys in Atlanta last season and quickly became friends. Throughout the week the linebackers talked about what Landman should expect and bounced ideas off each other.

"We compete with each other and we study together," Landman said. "I didn't feel alone out there, it was a good feeling."

Andersen cleared concussion protocol Thursday and participated fully in practices leading up to the Falcons first road game in Detroit. Now that Andersen is officially off the injury report and did not receive a game designation on Friday, it likely points to Andersen retaking his starting position against the Lions, but that doesn't mean the Falcons won't call on Landman again, even if a starter doesn't go down with injury.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Detroit Lions, presented by Fast Twitch.

"He had to step in for Troy and he made the best for himself," Gray said. "So all of sudden, we're like, 'Hey, do we need a three-linebacker package?' We as coaches, we're looking around like, 'Hey, how can we get all three of them on the field at the same time?'"

The depth isn't limited to just the linebackers room, either. It's the entire defense.

Unfortunately, injuries in the NFL are a matter of when and not if, and the Falcons believe they've built a squad to withstand that. Another example of this depth: Cornerback Jeff Okudah went down in training camp with a foot injury, and while he continues to amp up toward his return, Tre Flowers has taken the starting cornerback reins.

"You get him ready, you get his mind right (and) say, 'Hey look, you're a starter in the NFL,'" Gray said of Flowers. "He did a really good job. We're sitting here 2-0 so he had to do something right."

Even when it's not about stepping in for an injured player, the Falcons' defensive depth contributes. On the defensive front, Atlanta has utilized hockey-like rotations. The Falcons have also featured different safety packages.

At safety, Jaylinn Hawkins started 16 games for Atlanta last season, but has played behind Jessie Bates III after the Falcons signed the veteran in the offseason. For the Falcons, it's not a bad problem to have when one of your starting safeties earns NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors to begin the season, and the backup has over 20 starts of experience.

Along with the evergreen next-man-up mentality, Nielsen also preaches to attack and be aggressive.

That's best embodied on a hat that reads: "Choose violence" in bold capital letters. This is a hat each Falcons linebacker owns. It was a hat Landman strolled into Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday wearing. It was a saying that set up his first NFL start of his career.

"In this program, everybody here is a starter and that's the way we view it," Landman said. "I think that's why we've been so successful because we can all count on each other, the level of trust our teammates have with each other is huge."

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