Falcons’ defensive coordinator search kicks into gear; interviews set up

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith looks up during warm ups before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)
Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith looks up during warm ups before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons promised a "wide search" for their defensive coordinator opening, which will commence with interviews this week.

"It will be refreshing to go in there as we get to more formal interviews and hear other people's perspectives and learn a lot about people," coach Arthur Smith said. "We'll hire the best candidate, but the way we built it won't change."

In addition to Falcons linebackers coach Frank Bush, who took over for Dean Pees when he was injured before the Saints game on Dec. 18, the Falcons have requested permission to speak to five candidates and one has been denied.

Bush, who has coached in the NFL since 1993, is a strong internal candidate. He was Houston's defensive coordinator in 2009-10 and the Jets' interim coordinator in 2020.

The four outside candidates include Green Bay's Jerry Gray, Pittsburgh's Brian Flores, Carolina's Al Holcomb and New Orleans' Ryan Nielsen. The Falcons requested permission to interview Denver defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, but the request was denied because it would be a lateral move.

There was one report that the Falcons wanted to interview Jim Haslett, but he is not on the team's list of candidates and he is not a candidate.

Pees, 73, retired after serving for two seasons in order to spend more time with his family.

Smith is not limiting his search to coordinators who have utilized the 3-4 defense. Pees played mostly out of the 3-4 alignment, but early last season he went to a 4-3 with linebackers Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen all on the field.

The Falcons also played a lot of four-man fronts in their nickel packages.

"You can say you're 3-4, but you've got to think of how many different front variations there are," Smith said. "A lot of the game you're playing spread out (against) 11 (personnel -- one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) whether if you're a true 4-3 or 3-4, you're in a lot of four-down fronts."

Smith coached with Gray in Washington (2007-08) and Tennessee (2011-13). Gray, 60, is the Packers' defensive backs/passing-game coordinator. His request was first reported by Ben Allbright of KOA in Denver.

Flores, who is suing the league for discriminatory hiring practices, is the former head coach of the Dolphins and is currently the Steelers' linebackers coach. His request was first reported by Josina Anderson of CBS Sports.

Flores coached for two years in New England with Pees (2008-09). He already knows the intricacies of the Falcons' defense. However, he's also a candidate for the vacant Arizona head-coaching position.

Holcomb helped to resurrect the Panthers' defense after taking over this season when coach Matt Rhule was fired and Steve Wilks was named interim coach. His request was first reported by ESPN.

He was a defensive assistant on the New York Giants' staff in 2011 when they won the Super Bowl.

Nielsen, the Saints' co-defensive coordinator/defensive line, is familiar with Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot. Going into the 2022 season, the Saints amassed 232 sacks from 2017-2021, which ranked third in the league. The Saints had 48 sacks last season. The Falcons have been at the bottom of the league in sacks over that period. Nielsen's request was first reported by The Athletic.

Rather than be locked into an alignment, the Falcons want the ability to match up with offenses with position-less players.

"Whether if you have the hybrid guys that we do who are essentially defensive ends in (a) four-down front, that kind of gets overstated sometimes," Smith said. "It's really about being flexible. There are a lot of guys and a lot of great schemes in this league."

The Falcons have had 17 picks over their last two drafts and have picked seven defenders, including three outside linebackers/defensive ends in Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone.

Speedy inside linebacker Andersen was selected in the second round of the 2022 draft.

In the secondary, safety Richie Grant, who was taken in the second round of the 2021 draft, has shown promise. Cornerback Darren Hall was taken in the fourth round in 2021 but ended last season working on the scout team.

"When you are building the kind of hybrid model, you're not looking for an overhaul," Smith said. "We've been building something here. ... Baltimore is a great example. They've had a lot of success with (the 3-4) scheme."

Smith noted the Ravens have had several coordinators who have tweaked things.

"But the way they drafted it and they built it, that vision to be able to play multiple and have guys that are really versatile," Smith said. "That won't change."

The Falcons believe Pees put the next coordinator in position for success.

"That foundation has been built," Smith said.

Fontenot noted that Smith, the team's offensive play-caller, is heavily involved with the defense.

"He's involved in every phase: special team, defense (and) offense," Fontenot said. "He's involved in every area. He knows what structure he wants. He knows what affects him as a play-caller and what you struggle with. He knows what he wants it to look like."

Atlanta Falcons 2022 results

Sept. 11 Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18 Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17

Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15

Nov. 20 Falcons 27, Bears 24

Nov. 27 Commanders 19, Falcons 13

Dec. 4 Steelers 19, Falcons 16


Dec. 18 Saints 21, Falcons 18

Dec. 24 Ravens 17, Falcons 9

Jan. 1 Falcons 20, Cardinals 19

Jan. 8 Falcons 30, Buccaneers 17

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