The Atlanta Falcons hire Ryan Nelsen as Defensive Coordinator

The Atlanta Falcons hired Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator on Friday, taking him out from their biggest rival after he spent last season as co-defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints.

The 43-year-old Nielsen has spent the past six seasons with the Saints, serving as defensive backs coach all six years while adding the title of assistant coach in 2021 and co-defensive coordinator last season.

Since 2017, the Saints have recorded 281 sacks — second most in the NFL over that span — and have finished in the top four in run defense in four of the past five seasons.

Also on Friday, the Falcons let go of three defensive coaches — line coach Gary Emanuel, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino, and secondary coach John Hoke.

Nielsen is not in Las Vegas with the Falcons currently, as Atlanta coaches at the East-West Shrine Bowl. Linebackers head coach Frank Bosch is Atlanta’s defensive coordinator for the East-West game.

The Falcons needed a new defensive coordinator after Dean Pace, the oldest coordinator in the NFL last season at 73, decided to retire for the third time in his career to spend more time with his family, among other things.

The Pees have built a foundation to defend Atlanta, both in the style they want and the culture they need to permeate all over the roster.

“It was a different system than what they had,” said Pease. “So you had to get them to buy.”

The Falcons also had a young defense and turned all but two of the starters from the 2020 team – defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and cornerback AJ Terrell – the middle of last season. While Atlanta ranked No. 23 in points allowed and No. 27 in yards allowed in 2022, there was progress toward the end of the year.

The Falcons allowed more than 19 points once in their last six games and more than 350 yards in one game during the second half of the season (351 against Pittsburgh) after allowing more than 350 yards in six of Atlanta’s first eight games.

After the season, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said the franchise wanted to talk to a large number of potential candidates before making a decision, but also wanted to focus on flexibility with whomever it brings in.

“When you’re building this hybrid model, you’re not looking for an overhaul,” said Smith. “We’ve built something here.”

He did not limit his search, interviewing candidates with prior defensive coordinating experience, prior coaching experience, and those who were not full-time defensive coordinators.

When Smith hired the Pees, he wanted an experienced play-by-play communicator who could also act as a mentor for the first-time head coach to rely on. At Pees, Smith had it.

Where they are now is different than it was two seasons ago, Smith said. By the end of 2022, the Falcons had only five defensive players on the roster from the previous regime – Jarrett, Terrell, linebacker Michael WalkerBack corner Isaiah Oliver and safety Jaylen Hawkins. Oliver is a free agent this off-season and both Walker and Hawkins are in the final years of their contracts.

Smith compared what he hoped Atlanta would do to the Baltimore Ravens, who have had several defensive coordinators over the years and tweaks to their scheme, but not to the kind of players they looked for or the vision they had for the overall defense.

“The way we built it,” said Smith. “This will not change.”

Nielsen grew up in Southern California and then attended the University of Southern California as a defensive tackle and then became a volunteer assistant coach.

He spent the first 15 years of his coaching career in college, working with the defensive line at every stop along with being defensive coordinator at Central Connecticut in 2008 and 2009 and co-defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois in 2012.

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