The Falcons will look a little different on the defensive side of the ball this year. In the wake of Dean Pees’ retirement, Atlanta brought in Ryan Nielsen to coordinate the defense. Philosophical differences will impact the look of the defense, but the Falcons possess the second most cap space in the NFL; the personnel will also look different.
The first-time defensive coordinator spent every season working with the Saints’ defensive line since 2017. Over that period, New Orleans recorded 281 sacks, the second most in the NFL, finishing in the top 10 in five of the last six seasons. So, it’s not hard to see who will benefit the most from Nielsen’s presence — the defensive line, specifically Grady Jarrett and Ta’Quon Graham.
“What he’s going to do is actually bring a pass rush,” Saints defensive lineman Cameron Jordan said on ESPN Radio’s ‘Canty & Carlin,’ via ESPN. “Now he’s going to bring in some pass-rushers, and if not, he knows how to cultivate them. One of the best teachers of the defensive line that I’ve ever been a part of.”
New Orleans has long touted impressive talent in the trenches, including the All-Pro Cam Jordan, but he’s not the only one. The Saints regularly feature a healthy rotation of defenders, interior and on the edge. The Falcons have had Grady Jarrett, and that’s it until 2022. Ta’Quon Graham broke out last season and is easily the best running mate Jarrett has had in years.
Graham’s injury really hampered Jarrett’s impact. The Texas product may not have the sack totals or quarterback hits of some others, but his presence kept opposing offensive lines from double and triple-teaming Jarrett. In the first 11 games before Graham’s injury, Jarrett posted 5.5 of his six total sacks and 10 of his 12 tackles for a loss. That’s a considerable difference.
The Falcons have recorded an embarrassing number of sacks over the last few years. No amount of creative scheming is going to overcome the lack of talent. Recently, Atlanta hasn’t developed a defensive lineman at an elite level other than Jarrett. Hopefully, Nielsen is here to change that. Manufacturing a pass rush will take more than just improvements to the defensive line, though.
Those who believe the pass rush can be fixed by just bolstering the trenches haven’t been watching close enough. The Falcons’ defense needs talent at all three levels. If the coverage isn’t good, no matter how fast the pass rush gets home, an NFL quarterback can get it out quicker. If the Falcons can’t stop the run, offenses will consistently have manageable third downs. It’s a collective effort.
Photographer: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire