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Falcons season isn’t a total disappointment thanks to Ryan Nielsen’s defense

For all the frustration in Atlanta, one positive is this: Thee defense is going to bring the intensity and push the opposition, which is something that has been lacking for five years.

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NFL: DEC 24 Colts at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The best way to describe the 2023 Atlanta Falcons is to say that they are consistently inconsistent. There is no telling what to expect from them based on their erratic play from week-to-week. If they have some consistent aspects, the first thing that comes to mind is how often the offense finds ways to beat themselves with self-inflicted mistakes. From turnovers to pre-snap penalties, opposing defenses don’t have to be at their best to force errors out of a unit severely lacking attention to detail. That’s only one side of the ball, however.

On the other side of the ball, there is more consistency, and that’s a positive. A defensive unit consisting of the perfect balance between stars in their prime, hungry veterans playing with purpose, and young rising talent growing into handling expanded roles. The assortment of talent on all three levels of the defense deserves enormous praise, but their potential can’t be maximized without proper guidance and direction. The defense can only make legitimate strides led by one of the best Falcon hirings in recent memory.

Kyle Shanahan and Mike Nolan are the only two coordinators in the past decade who have made the type of significant impact Ryan Nielsen has made in Atlanta, and he and experienced assistant head coach Jerry Gray have this group ahead of schedule. Transforming a unit in dire need of a new identity takes a considerable amount of work. An organization could try to do it in one off-season, but there are usually moments when the coaching staff realizes not every wish can be fulfilled within six months before the season. Sacrifices have to be made.

Personnel from the previous regime that may not fit a long-term vision must still be utilized. Flaws have to be worked around to put together a respectable unit. This was expected to be a difficult challenge to revamp a defense that had ranked among the worst in several important rankings since the 2018 season.

Formidable Front

The climb back to being respectable has not only been accomplished this season; it has been surpassed. That certainly showed up in a dominant display against one of the more efficient, well-devised offenses in the league. The Falcons battered the Colts in the trenches against the run and through the air. The outstanding linebacker tandem of Kaden Elliss and Nate Landman made numerous stops to make Jonathan Taylor’s return a forgettable day. To cap it all off, the secondary stayed disciplined against Shane Steichen’s wizardry of scheming skill position players open, led by future All-Pro safety Jessie Bates, who added to his highlight reel with his sixth interception in 2023.

As The Athletic’s Josh Kendall pointed out, this was only the third time Indianapolis had been held to under four yards per play this season. They have sliced defenses open with persistent RPOs and condensed formations. They have punished units with their power running game. While Michael Pittman and Zack Moss were sidelined in this matchup, this is an offense accustomed to playing short-handed. They scored 30 points and nearly gained 400 yards against the Steelers last week without Taylor, while Pittman and Moss were out for the second half due to injuries. They know how to outsmart and execute opposing defenses. They couldn’t do that against Nielsen’s compact, ferocious group.

Getting the centerpiece back was crucial for their success. Although he didn’t have his usual notable impact, David Onyemata’s presence will always elevate the defense. He is a commanding force who forces opponents to account for him at all times. His return helped create clear opportunities against the run for two players who have consistently played at a high level all season.

Elliss and Landman were bursting into the backfield to cut off any possibility of the Colts getting their running game going. Both linebackers never shy away from taking on blocks and know how to anticipate potential lanes. Elliss stood out in particular, with three tackles for a loss and a sack. He has emerged as one of the most valuable defensive players on the team over the second half of the season.

They weren’t the only players to make a huge difference, as Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree had notable moments of setting the edge and cutting inside to make plays at the line of scrimmage. Zach Harrison’s recent flashes of solid play converted into his best game of the season. The same can be said for LaCale London, as well. One of the biggest components of Nielsen’s defense is having big, powerful linemen who can overwhelm offensive linemen and impose their will on tight ends against the run. Adding veterans and younger players to go with the free agency splash of Onyemata has helped reconstruct what was normally an undersized unit that often faltered against power running teams.

Campbell warrants special praise for maintaining his high level of play despite playing more snaps than expected. He’s at the core of what has become a very good run-stopping unit. It’s so good that my colleague William McFadden impressively highlighted in his recent piece that they allowed their first rushing touchdown to a running back this season, as it took three plays for Taylor to score at the one-yard line.

The success on the ground converted carried over through the air. According to Pro Football Focus, the defense produced seven sacks, three hits, and 16 hurries on 46 dropbacks. Nielsen’s blitzes were hugely effective but not overly depended on. There was more of an emphasis on using simulated pressures with Elliss at the heart of those concepts. The versatile linebacker would press into the Colts’ interior, allowing other defensive linemen to twist around him to disrupt Minshew’s processing and timing. It ultimately resulted in him running into pressure and taking sacks when stepping up in the pocket.

Campbell, Harrison, and Arnold Ebiketie had their share of sacks, as Nielsen would get creative with a linebacker but still rush four by having a lineman spot drop in coverage. It worked to perfection on several occasions to knock the Colts off balance.

Astute and Aggressive

Even when Steichen would respond with a well-timed RPO or slide a pass-catcher across the formation for an easy chunk play, Nielsen had another thing coming, whether it was his three safety usage to crowd the middle of the field or having a defensive back blitzing from the blindside. The slight adjustments had the Colts all out of sorts when trying to use misdirection, which is something that has been one of their signature methods of success this season.

Elliss and Richie Grant both had well-timed blitzes that converted into sacks, with pressure coming from a variety of angles. Nielsen doesn’t get fixated on blitzing through one particular gap or area. He brings it from different angles to cause quarterbacks to panic and make rash decisions. That’s what led to Minshew’s desperate heave downfield landing in the hands of the high-flying Bates, who is the ultimate tone-setter and standard-maker of the entire revamped defense. Any off-season conversation about “safety value” when assessing Bates’ contract has been silenced by his performance as the team’s MVP. He is the other primary driving force behind this rapid defensive improvement alongside Nielsen.

Every good defense has an identity that pushes them to play at a high standard. In the season of giving, that’s the greatest gift Nielsen has brought as a defensive coordinator. The defense plays organized, disciplined football at all levels where open-field tackles are going to be made, and explosive plays downfield will have to be earned by remarkable individual excellence. Other than the mid-season three-game losing streak against Tennessee, Minnesota, and Arizona, Nielsen’s defense has done every bit of it to put the Falcons in position to win every game. They have been the main reason for several of their wins, as well.

Shining in the Storm

Uncertainty very much lingers over Atlanta. The convincing win doesn’t overshadow what has been a turbulent season, one that may be leading to Arthur Smith’s potential dismissal. It’s rare for defensive coordinators to remain when a new head coach comes in. The way Nielsen has helped elevate the defense will be something Arthur Blank considers in his decision, as he recently stated in an interview with The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz.

Regardless of what happens in the final two games of the season, the defense has done a tremendous job in making this season somewhat worthwhile. Regardless of what happens with Smith, Nielsen’s vision has built a credible defense filled with excellent players and genuine leaders.

A real foundation complete with excellence and a winning strategy had been lacking for so long in Atlanta. It’s finally here. Making the playoffs as the fourth or seventh seed won’t make a difference in terms of how the Falcons perceive the job Nielsen has done. He is the biggest reason why this season hasn’t been a complete failure, with the slight possibility of them overcoming the long odds of playing football in mid-January.