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Ryan Nielsen comes to Atlanta looking for sound play and big improvement

In his Monday press conference, Nielsen sounded just like us.

New Orleans Saints v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

All we really want is for the Atlanta Falcons defense to be one of the league’s most feared units. They’ve only been top ten in terms of preventing scores and yardage twice in the last 30 years, the profoundly weird 2017 season and back in their possibly best-ever year in 1998. In between those and after them, the defense has swung wildly between decent and horrible.

The hire of Ryan Nielsen and a big offseason spending spree is, we all hope, the reason that finally changes. The Falcons have a few foundational pieces, the cap space, and the draft capital to finally put together a good defense—we’re not expecting greatness in 2023—and it just can’t be more of the same with that much change. Of course, success will be more than just adding players, and Nielsen and the coaching staff will have to do more with more after Dean Pees couldn’t coax significant improvement out of a unit that simply didn’t have a ton of talent.

Why was Nielsen drawn to Atlanta? On Monday in his introductory press conference and in a sit-down interview with’s Scott Bair, the new defensive coordinator explained.

Alignment with Arthur

I thought Nielsen’s most illuminating comments concerned not so much his passion or his faith in the direction of the Falcons, which are good things, but his focus on fundamentally sound football. Arthur Smith’s Atlanta team was, in 2022 at least, notably good at avoiding costly penalties and a bit better at being in the right place at the right time, and Nielsen clearly wants that to continue.

From Bair’s writeup:

“The big thing in the National Football League and in all of football is execution,” Nielsen said. “We want to execute the defense. We want to be physical, tough, sound. Those things, those win football games. We’ve got some playmakers here and we’re going to add to those guys. Playmakers make plays and you win football games. We will go through this philosophy with the defensive staff and everything comes from Coach Smith. He and I think very alike on how we play. It’s important how we play, soundly. That’s the important thing.”

Executing at a high level and playing sound football also means, obviously, missing fewer tackles and allowing fewer coverage busts, two issues that once again plagued Atlanta’s defense in 2022. We’ll see if Nielsen can get this defense playing not just at a higher level, but at a sound one.

Embracing Jarrett and intrigued by Andersen

Like Dean Pees before him, Nielsen already seems delighted to have the chance to work with Grady Jarrett. One of the great people in the league and obviously one of the team’s best defenders, Jarrett will be a key part of what Nielsen’s defense, especially since he’s the squad’s lone great player up front.

Andersen is a bit of a different story. The coaching staff has talked about his growth and talent, most recently in Mike Rothstein’s writeup about his future, but his first year in the NFL was expectedly uneven. Improvement from Andersen could make him a force for the defense, but Nielsen’s ability to use the hyper-athletic linebacker as a chess piece could make him very interesting indeed. That’s especially true if the team can tap into his potential as a pass rusher.

Pass rush incoming

This is priority one, right?

The Falcons could stand to improve more or less across the board defensively, and their inability to stop the run this past season was deeply frustrating. For all that, this is still a passing league, and the team’s inability to throw opposing quarterbacks off their game would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. If Nielsen can actually get the Falcons rolling with a quality pass rush, he’ll soon be a folk hero in Atlanta.

For someone who has to know this team’s recent history in that regard, Nielsen’s confidence was welcome.

This is where the talent comes in, because Nielsen and company aren’t going to be able to transform this pass rush’s fortunes without new additions. The how is the big question, but this is a coach who consistently had that New Orleans defensive line generating pressure, so I’m at least confident he has a few good ideas.

We’re not going to know a whole lot about Nielsen beyond his background and his opening remarks for a little while yet, but suffice to say his background with the defensive line and enthusiasm for a difficult job are both welcome. Once the Falcons get him talent upgrades to work with and he finishes hiring his staff, we’ll see whether Nielsen is the kind of savvy hire who can deliver us a long-awaited great defense.