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Falcons DC Ryan Nielsen provides a new hope to address a decade-long flaw

From his pass-rushing background to his overall philosophy, the new Falcons’ defensive coordinator is ready to make opposing quarterbacks feel uncomfortable for a change when facing Atlanta.

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Los Angeles Chargers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

There were several notable, enticing defensive coordinators on the market. The Falcons managed to be linked with practically all of them, from Brian Flores to Steve Wilks to Vic Fangio to Ejiro Evero. For all the excitement, it always seemed like they would hire an under-the-radar candidate to replace Dean Pees.

Ryan Nielsen proved to be the best fit in the organization’s eyes to be the defensive coordinator. Instead of potentially being in bidding wars for Evero or spending a considerable amount of money in luring Fangio, they went with someone highly-regarded yet not being talked up as a top candidate.

Despite only having one year of defensive coordinating experience, Nielsen has a plethora of coaching experience across the board. He works relentlessly with players. The desire to improve talent and elevate their game is evident from his recent interviews.

All coaches need to be able to connect with players to help execute their scheme. It takes a common understanding of responsibilities, utilizing their biggest assets, technique enhancement, and being adaptable to elevate an entire unit.

Nielsen hasn’t been overly detailed in his response to questions since arriving in Atlanta. Everything you want to hear from a defensive coordinator has been said by playing physical, tough, and sound football. Nielsen isn’t here to win press conferences. The former Saints defensive coordinator was brought here to bolster a porous unit in dire need of improvement in all three levels of the defense.

That starts and ends with where his specialty lies. If the Falcons’ defense is going to develop into a respectable unit, they will need their front to lead the charge in the trenches.

Adding more size and power on the defensive line

There have been many alarming aspects of watching the Falcons attempt to generate pressure over the past decade. In recent years, it became apparent how undersized and unpolished they were. Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley are likely the first two names that come to mind when assessing personnel disappointments. Even in past seasons with Pees calling the shots, the defensive line was consistently pushed around when rushing straight up and stonewalled when trying to be creative with stunts and twists.

While possessing explosiveness with edge rushers generating pressure with blistering first steps and interior tackles with a tremendous burst is extremely valuable, a defensive line must win with power at some point.

New Orleans built a defensive line where players could win with power, technique, and explosiveness. The array of pass rushers they could use to wear down opposing offensive lines played a pivotal role in establishing themselves as a top-tier unit. Cameron Jordan was at the nucleus of it all. As someone who has spoken glowingly of Nielsen, he was able to impose his will with his long arms and diverse pass-rushing arsenal.

Nielsen helped him become a terrorizer by utilizing his versatility in different areas across the defensive line. Being multiple is a massive asset to defenses to disrupt offenses. It’s something Nielsen is accustomed to being involved with.

The conversation of running a 4-3 or 3-4 doesn’t apply to him. Schematic flexibility creates ample opportunities. Talent versatility is what transforms potential opportunities into greater possibilities.

New Orleans had a group of tone-setters up alongside Jordan with Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, David Omaymata, and Sheldon Rankins during Nielsen’s tenure. In a league built on speed, they bullied fronts into submission and collapsed quarterback pockets. It will be fascinating to see how Nielsen transfers the success of relying on brute force over sheer quickness to Atlanta.

Adapting to the roster and not overly depending on past success

As great as those defensive fronts in New Orleans were, the Falcons won’t be able to instantly replicate their success. They have used notable recent draft capital on edge rushers in Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone. Both players are more reliant on technique and speed than power to win their matchups on the outside.

How Nielsen looks to transform their respective games will be crucial for 2023 because as much as the Falcons will look to be active in free agency for the first time in years, they aren’t going to simply give up on second and third-round picks so suddenly.

It’s well documented that a talent injection is needed in the trenches. The Falcons ranked 31st in quarterback pressure last season, which has become a yearly formality at this point. They only produced 47 quarterback hits per Pro Football Focus. To average fewer than three quarterback hits per game is abysmal.

Some will argue the reasoning behind that was the Falcons had the second-fewest money allocated to their defense in the league last season behind Detroit. While a lack of talent will certainly put you at a disadvantage, there’s got to be ways to make quarterbacks more uncomfortable.

Nielsen is in a pole position to bring the necessary change to Atlanta. They will spend to improve up front, potentially with players he is familiar with in Davenport and Omaymata. That said, there must be a plan for infusing the new additions while pinpointing who could be potential difference-makers for the long haul. Grady Jarrett may be aging and not as versatile as Jordan, but he is more than capable of being the driving force with a much-improved supporting cast. His agility and hand usage will have Nielsen salivating about what pressures he can dial up to get him in the backfield even more.

It’s important to emphasize it’s not solely about collapsing pockets and hitting quarterbacks. Stopping the run will be crucial as well. Given Arthur Smith’s strong commitment to the running game and Nielsen seeing firsthand how much the Saints punished the Falcons on the ground in past seasons, the necessity to improve up front will be considered from which players can be counted on to take on multiple blockers, blow up running lanes, set the edge, and remained composed against option concepts.

Nielsen spoke about the value of stopping the run with a lightbox. If the Falcons can defend the run more times than not with only four defensive linemen and two linebackers, it will be another pivotal step in their ascendence as an entire unit.

A new refreshing identity

Nielsen’s lack of name recognition shouldn’t deter fans from being optimistic about the future. A change was needed in Atlanta following two years of Pees running an archaic, predictable defense. While Pees had to work under difficult circumstances with a limited roster, the modern game felt like it passed by him. Nielsen has been at the pulse of what is going on with one of the top defenses over the past five years.

He knows how to construct a defensive line and devise schemed-up pressures with linebackers bursting into open gaps. Alongside Dennis Allen, it was impressive how the Saints generated consistent pressure.

There is plenty of work to be done for the Falcons to get to that level. They should feel confident about who is taking charge of the defense. It’s now a matter of identifying which players are worth investing in for the long haul.

Who can help provide the linebackers space to make stops in the run game and rattle quarterbacks when the opportunity is right? Who can give the secondary more opportunities to make plays on the ball? Who is going to solve what has become a decade-long search for a productive, sustainable pass rush?

Other than 2016 and 2017, the Falcons’ defensive front has been below-average to atrocious over the past decade. The team has made several poor personnel decisions, along with going in puzzling schematic directions, from Mike Smith’s desire to get big with 300-pound defensive linemen everywhere to Dan Quinn thinking he can use bear fronts with players not suited for that defensive alignment.

The vision must be aligned with the personnel on your defense. It starts up front, which is what Nielsen will aim to accomplish with his coaching methods, eye for talent, and past ties with Terry Fontenot.