Jaguars hire Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator and task him with turning around woeful unit

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen for the same position Monday, tasking him with revamping a unit that was one of the worst in the league late in the season.

The 44-year-old Nielsen takes over for Mike Caldwell, who was fired along with seven defensive assistants a day after the Jaguars (9-8) ended the season by losing five of six and missing the playoffs.

Jacksonville had issues on both sides of the ball, but coach Doug Pederson made Caldwell the scapegoat for the worst late-season collapse in franchise history. Pederson kept longtime friend and play-caller Press Taylor and much of the offensive staff intact.

“We’re excited to welcome Ryan and have him lead our defense moving forward,” Pederson said in a statement. “Ryan is an outstanding football coach, and his defenses with the Falcons and Saints were always fundamentally sound in both their physicality and concepts."

Pederson pinned offensive struggles on injuries to quarterback Trevor Lawrence and receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones while placing more blame on the other side of the ball.

Caldwell’s unit allowed 29.2 points and 146.8 yards rushing in the team’s five losses down the stretch. The only win was a 26-0 drubbing of Carolina, which finished with the worst record in the league.

Nielsen has just one year of NFL experience as a sole DC, but he found instant success in Atlanta. The Falcons ranked third in the league in third-down defense, fourth in red-zone scoring, 11th in yards allowed and 18th in points — numbers that had been better until Atlanta ended the season by giving up 85 points in consecutive losses to Chicago and New Orleans.

“He has the rare ability to both teach and connect with his players," Pederson said. "He builds lasting, two-way relationships predicated on trust. He establishes accountability, first from himself, then the players.

"What I’ve most admired about Ryan’s defenses — and we saw this in London back in October — was their shared intensity and enthusiasm to get the job done and impact the game.”

Nielsen previously served as co-DC in New Orleans in 2022 and spent five years before that as the Saints’ defensive line coach. He worked for more than a dozen years at the collegiate level, including stints at Mississippi (2005-07) and North Carolina State (2013-16).

Nielsen inherits a Jacksonville unit with plenty of talent, beginning with pass rushers Josh Allen and Travon Walker. Linebackers Devin Lloyd and Foye Oluokun as well as cornerback Tyson Campbell, safety Andre Cisco and defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton also are expected to be core pieces in 2024.

The Falcons, who are still looking for a head coach, initially blocked Nielsen from interviewing for a lateral position with Jacksonville before relenting.

Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke also interviewed Shane Bowen (Tennessee), Chris Harris (Chicago), Chris Hewitt (Baltimore), Marquand Manuel (New York Jets) and Wink Martindale (New York Giants) for the opening.