LAS VEGAS — The Atlanta Falcons hired Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator on Friday, removing him from their biggest rival after spending last season as defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints.
Nielsen, 43, has spent the past six seasons with the Saints, where he was the defensive line coach for all six while adding the title of assistant head coach in 2021 and co-defensive coordinator last season.
Since 2017, the Saints have recorded 281 sacks — the 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.
On Friday, the Falcons also let go of three defensive coaches — line coach Gary Emanuel, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino and secondary coach Jon Hoke.
Nielsen isn’t in Las Vegas with the Falcons staff currently, as Atlanta is coaching in the East-West Shrine Bowl. Linebackers coach Frank Bush is Atlanta’s defensive coordinator in the East-West game.
The Falcons needed a new defensive coordinator after Dean Pees, the oldest NFL coordinator last season at 73, decided to retire for the third time in his career to spend more time with his family, among others.
Pees has built a foundation for the Atlanta defense, both in the style they want to run and in the culture they need to imbue throughout the roster.
«It was a different system than what they had,» Pees said. «So you had to get them to buy.»
The Falcons also had a young defense and turned over all but two starters on the 2020 team — defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and cornerback AJ Terrell — midway through last season. While Atlanta finished No. 23 in points allowed and No. 27 in yards allowed in 2022, there was some progress towards the end of the year.
The Falcons have allowed 19+ points once in their last six games and 350+ yards in one game in the second half of the season (351 vs. Pittsburgh) after giving up 350+ yards in six of eight Atlanta’s first games.
After the season, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said the franchise wanted to talk to a slew of potential candidates before making a decision, but also wanted to focus on flexibility with whoever he brought in. .
«When you’re building this hybrid model, you’re not looking for an overhaul,» Smith said. «We built something here.»
He didn’t limit his search, having interviewed candidates with previous defensive coordinator experience, previous head coaching experience, and those who weren’t full-time solo defensive coordinators.
When Smith hired Pees, he wanted an experienced playcaller who could also mentor a first-time head coach to lean on. In Pees, Smith had that.
Where they are now, Smith said, is different than it was two seasons ago. By the end of 2022, the Falcons were down to just five defensive players on the previous regime’s roster — Jarrett, Terrell, linebacker Mykal Walker, cornerback Isaiah Oliver and safety Jaylinn Hawkins. Oliver is a free agent this offseason and Walker and Hawkins are in the final years of their contracts.
Smith compared what he hoped Atlanta could do to the Baltimore Ravens, who had multiple defensive coordinators over the years and made changes to their scheme, but not the type of players they were looking for or the vision they had of the overall plan. of the defense.
«The way we built,» Smith said. «That won’t change.»
Nielsen grew up in Southern California, then went to college at USC as a defensive tackle, 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 save while serving as defensive coordinator at Central Connecticut State in 2008 and 2009 and defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois in 2012.