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Ryan Nielsen, David Onyemata, Arnold Ebiketie identify signs of an improving Falcons pass rush

Atlanta doubled its season total with five sacks against Washington in Week 6. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Ryan Nielsen is in the development business. That's how he described his role as Falcons defensive coordinator to young players and veterans alike.

The purveyor of "attack and be aggressive" has another code for him and his coaching staff.

"It's always about develop, develop, develop, develop, develop," Nielsen said in his Thursday press conference. "…Even with good players, you're still pushing them to get better."

Nielsen, a top-tier defensive line coach before taking the Falcons job, has continued to work with the front to make it more impactful. Through six weeks, he is seeing some encouraging signs that go well beyond the five sacks recorded against Washington this past Sunday.

"They rushed really well together, whoever was out on the field — it finally came — and it does, it always happens like that," Nielsen said of the defensive front getting so many sacks. "They really rushed well, two guys to the left, two guys to the right, push the quarterback, counter—Bud [Dupree] had a nice counter, Calais [Campbell] had a nice counter off the block, he had a sack, and those type of things.

"You're seeing a move and then a counter, instead of just one move and then kind of push and things like that. I think it's progressed weekly; it's gotten better. Those guys have done a good job affecting the quarterback. Last game they did a good job of affecting him and getting him down."

Nielsen said the Falcons are also getting better in run defense thanks to proper fundamentals and increased comfort with techniques being asked of them in this relatively new scheme.

Improving the pass rush is mandatory after years of struggle getting after the quarterback. The Falcons invested heavily in the line, adding Calais Campbell, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree in free agency to accompany star Grady Jarrett. They added second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie in 2022 and third-rounder Zach Harrison in 2023. Nielsen's also on board, partnering with Dave Huxtable as they work to get a talented group playing together.

They were doing so against the Commanders, with the stats to show for it. In addition to their five sacks, they pressured Sam Howell on 44.8% of his dropbacks, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That was a season-high for Atlanta. They also accomplished that feat rushing just four on 23 of the 29 dropbacks. While Washington has allowed lots of pressure this season, that still counts as a positive development.

While they doubled the season sack total in just one game, Onyemata pointed out they've been applying pressure well this season.

"(The five sacks were) huge for that, but that doesn't take away from all we've done affecting the quarterback," Onyemata said. "It's about executing our jobs. From the get-go, it has been about timing. On Sunday, our timing was great, and we were able to capitalize on those plays."

In general, Onyemata believes even better is on the way for this defensive front as all these new pieces continue working together.

"Getting after the quarterback is something we can hang our hat on, and we're going to continue to work towards that," he said. "Whatever the numbers say, we know that we're working hard and doing the right thing. We're affecting the quarterback, making plays and making smart decisions."

Detailed pass-rush stats don't show the Falcons as high-ranking in many categories, but those involved are seeing strides that provide optimism their best work is yet to come.

"I believe we're taking that next step," Ebiketie said. "It's one thing to affect the quarterback, but you obviously want make him out of sync even more. Moving forward, we need to get after the quarterback even more, to help with a momentum swing and get the ball back to the offense. We want to take a toll on the quarterback and make things difficult."

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

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