FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — At the start of his first week at the Atlanta Falcons practice facility, new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said he’s not willing to commit to a 4-3 or 3-4 as the base alignment of his multiple schemes.
“Let’s just stop people,” Nielsen said Monday.
Nielsen, the former co-defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, was hired by Atlanta on Jan. 27 to replace Dean Pees, who retired at 73.
Nielsen, 43, takes over a unit that ranked 27th in total defense, allowing 362.1 yards per game. Atlanta ranked 31st with 21 sacks.
Atlanta's defense gained momentum in Pees' second and final season, allowing no more than 25 points in the final nine games of a 7-10 season and under 20 points in five of the last six games.
Nielsen said he wants to build on Pees' work, not start over.
“Dean has done a great job here,” Nielsen said. “We don’t want to just blow everything up and start all over again. We’re going to take what we’ve done well here the last couple of years and implement some new things, put in some new ideas and just kind of marry it.”
A chronic weak spot on defense has been the pass rush. Atlanta ranked 31st with 21 sacks after finishing last in 2021.
Nielsen, who also coached the Saints defensive line, has had success in helping to devise successful pass rushes. He joined the Saints staff in 2017, and New Orleans finished in the top 10 in sacks in five of his six seasons.
The search for an edge rusher could rank near the top of the Falcons' needs during free agency and the draft.
“We’ll get it going,” said Nielsen when asked about the pass rush.
Nielsen joined coach Arthur Smith, general manager Terry Fontenot and the coaching staff at the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas last week. Fontenot worked 18 years with the Saints before he was hired by Atlanta in 2021.
“Obviously, Terry and I have a relationship in the past, so that part was easy,” Nielsen said, adding the leadership with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Fontenot and Smith was important in his decision to leave New Orleans.
“It’s the right fit,” Nielsen said. “Ownership, head coach, general manager who see a lot of things the same. The way this program is going, the organization and how guys play. Definitely the right fit and the place I want to be.”
Nielsen said there's no need to classify his defense as a four-man or three-man front because it will employ principles of each scheme.
“You guys can call it whatever you want to call it,” he said.
“We’re going to be multiple in what we do and it may look 3-4 but it also may look 4-3,” Nielsen said.
When announcing Nielsen's hire, the Falcons said three defensive assistants will not return next season: defensive line coach Gary Emanuel, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino and secondary coach Jon Hoke.
Smith hired former Green Bay defensive backs coach Jerry Gray as assistant head coach for defense last week.