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Question of the Week: What does the Ryan Nielsen hire say about the Falcons defensive future? 

Scott Bair and Tori McElhaney discuss. 

The Falcons have officially named their defensive coordinator. Ryan Nielsen landed the job in Atlanta on Friday after six seasons in New Orleans as the Saints defensive line coach and - most recently in 2022 - co-defensive coordinator.

We won't hear from Nielsen for a few more days as his first official press conference won't happen until the Falcons football staff returns from Las Vegas at the conclusion of the Shrine Bowl. That doesn't mean we can't talk about him, or his hire.


As a head's up: This week's 'Question of the Week' installment will look a little different than last week's. Ashton Edmunds is out in Las Vegas with the coaching staff so it'll just be Scott Bair and me (yo, it's Tori) discussing this hire.

So, with that in mind, Scott, what intrigues you the most about the Falcons hiring not just Nielsen, but Jerry Gray, too?

Scott: I think both represent good hires, T-Mac. (Can I call you T-Mac? Though it sort of just happened without permission.) I also think they're even better together.

Nielsen is a younger, rising-star assistant who has been excellent game-planning but hasn't called plays. Gray has done that a ton in coordinator stints with Buffalo and Tennessee over the course of (checks notes) 26 NFL seasons. If Nielsen has any questions about calling a game, Gray's experience will be an invaluable resource.

Nielsen has had great success generating pressure up front. Gray is a respected secondary coach. See how this puzzle is starting to fit? Again, I'd bet they're going to work well together.

Nielsen's going to run the defensive show and be its primary architect, which, of course, begs an obvious and simultaneously eye-rolling question: The Saints run more of a standard 4-3 base defense, with all contributing defensive ends above 260 pounds, including two (most notably Cam Jordan) above 280. Only one primary Falcons edge rusher is above 250.

We haven't had a chance to hear from Nielsen yet, so he may quell this maybe-not-so-real concern, but is his recent working with the big Saints' 4-3 base an issue to you, Tori?

Tori: I'm actually not too worried about that at all. (And yes, you can call me T-Mac). In fact, Arthur Smith himself was asked about this on Monday. His response follows my line of thinking, too, which is that oftentimes, too much is made about a specific front.

"I do laugh sometimes about the 4-3 or 3-4 thing," Smith said during his Monday press conference at the Shrine Bowl. "... You watch base defense and they've got five guys up on the line of scrimmage, call it whatever you want, whether you call that guy (on the end of the defensive line) an open-side end, a jack linebacker, it doesn't matter."

And really, it doesn't. At this point, teams across the league switch in and out of formations and fronts based on personnel choices and what an offense is showing at that moment. The Falcons did so under Dean Pees. Heck, how many times in two years did Pees show a 3-4 or 4-3 or 4-2-5 or five or six players up at the line of scrimmage, all in one singular game? A lot.

Why? Because formations and fronts are fluid.

Just because the Saints ran a 4-3 base doesn't mean the Falcons will do so under Nielsen. Let's be honest here, too: We don't even know what Nielsen's game-day play-calling looks like. He didn't call plays on game day with the Saints. Dennis Allen did.

With that being said, the question to me isn't about the front the Falcons choose to run their defense out of. The better question to me is who are they going to bring in via the draft, a trade or free agency? That may tell us more about defensive fronts and rotations than Nielsen's defensive coordinator status will.

Scott: I feel like I mention this a ton on podcasts and in Bair Mails: transactions will tell you far more about that Falcons vision than any podium session. This is a competitive business. No point in tipping your pitches against a good lineup.

Arthur Smith said right after the season that the Falcons have to get more explosive in the passing game and in the pass rush. Additions are coming up front, assuredly through free agency and the NFL Draft.

Are the Falcons going to load up with some stout former Saints Nielsen is familiar with, like Marcus Davenport and/or David Onyemata. Those guys would be good adds on any team. There are good interior linemen available in free agency. This is a deep edge rusher class, no matter what traits you're looking for. There are plenty of quality versatile linemen and edge rushers coming out of college, which falls into what Smith and Fontenot called the "hybrid model."

Despite whatever Pees' defense was classified, "multiple" was his term. It was also the right one. Something tells me that, when the plays come in, "multiple" will still be appropriate when we see how his scheme is executed.

Smith mentioned that was the best fit for the Falcons, which was a deciding factor. Why do you think Nielsen is a good fit in Atlanta?

Tori: Because he's cut from the same cloth as Arthur Smith.

Smith was an offensive lineman in college. Nielsen was a defensive lineman in college.

Smith is intense in his conviction that his team have mean and nasty linemen. Nielsen is intense in his conviction that his team have mean and nasty linemen.

Smith's play-calling lives and dies at the line of scrimmage. Nielsen's play-calling lives and dies at the line of scrimmage.

Need I say more?

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

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