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Ryan Nielsen’s 2023 will be remembered fondly, even if the team won’t be

Brought on to replace a retiring Dean Pees, Nielsen presided over real improvement.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Ryan Nielsen came from New Orleans with connections to Terry Fontenot, a single year as a co-defensive coordinator, and plenty to prove. He was landing with an Atlanta Falcons team that had lost Dean Pees to retirement and was searching for considerable defensive improvement, and Arthur Smith and Fontenot were counting on him to deliver it.

He didn’t do so alone—Jerry Gray was a veteran hire with a ton of experience, including as a defensive coordinator, and Fontenot’s free agent investments were critical—but Nielsen did conjure up that improvement. The team went from 23rd in points allowed to 18th and from 27th in yardage allowed to 11th, from a red zone scoring percentage allowed of 55% to 45.3%, and from a third down conversion rate of 45.9% to 33.8%. It wasn’t a great defense—it especially wasn’t great in the final couple of weeks of the season—but it was an improved one by virtually any metric you looked at. My god, they had over 40 sacks.

Again, this didn’t happen by accident. Nielsen proved adept at rolling out players in a way that maximized what they were good at, and he was willing to park players in favor of other options if they didn’t perform up to snuff. The best example of that latter tendency was the insertion of rookie DeMarcco Hellams into the lineup over a scuffling Richie Grant, while the former saw him plugging in LaCale London, Albert Huggins, Kentavius Street, Nate Landman, and Tre Flowers owing to injuries and getting very good (Landman, briefly London and Street) to solid (everyone else) performances out of them. The pass rush improved despite a lack of high-end investments up front—Kaden Elliss counts and so does David Onyemata, but he was hurt often over the back half of the season—and the defense became a genuine asset just in time for the offense to spend large portions of the season cratering.

That still made the season worthwhile for stretches. The Falcons were one of just five teams to hold the surging Houston Texans under 20 points in the regular season, which led to a thrilling win. The clamp-down kids on the Falcons’ defense willed the team to victory over the Buccaneers (16-13), Saints (24-15), and Colts (29-10), and kept many other games within reach. If the Falcons had boasted a more capable, more functional offense in 2023, they’re likely winning 10 games and the defense would’ve really had its praises sung for the job they did.

Still, Nielsen was ultimately the man responsible for pulling that together, and I have to think Fontenot’s confidence in his ability to do so paid off, even if it was only for a single year. The Falcons pumped money into the defense on all three levels after spending a couple of years building some sort of foundation with Pees running it, and they needed a confident, capable coach to help put the pieces together and overcome the team’s still-remaining weaknesses by masking them. Nielsen provided that for one glorious season, and it’s genuinely a shame that the defensive gains did not coincide with the whole team growth we expected and wanted.

The Falcons were willing to let Nielsen go because their new head coach is likely intent on bringing in his own defensive coordinator, assuming he will not be coordinating that defense himself. They also have to feel confident that the base of a good defense is here to work with, even if there are questions up front about the defense’s outlook with free agents hitting the market and greats in Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata on the wrong side of 30. There are no sure things, but my hope is that we won’t miss Nielsen as much as we think we will right now.

Nielsen’s gone after just a single year, and the Jaguars are getting a quality defensive coordinator with him. The 2023 season was a disappointment in many ways, but on balance, the job this defense and Nielsen did is something worth remembering fondly, especially after so many forgettable years on that side of the ball.