The Minnesota Vikings‘ first interview for their vacant defensive coordinator position shows Kevin O’Connell is not married to the idea of sticking to a 3-4 base scheme.
The Vikings announced they had completed an interview with New Orleans Saints defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, who has been behind one of the most consistent defensive line cores of the past seven years.
Nielsen, 43, arrived in New Orleans in 2017 and was a transformative force. The Saints became a top-10 defense overnight, allowing the 10th fewest points in the league that season after ranking 31st in points allowed in 2016. They have ranked in the top 10 for sacks and run defense each of the past four seasons.
New Orleans ranked fifth in total defense this season. The Saints’ 48 sacks ranked fourth in the league, with 30 sacks and 45 tackles for loss coming from the defensive line, per Sports Illustrated.
What’s most impressive is Nielsen has gotten that production out of his defensive line while the Saints blitzed at the sixth-lowest rate (16.8%) in the league. Realistically, the Vikings cannot afford to blitz as much as fans may like given their lack of depth at cornerback. Nielsen getting more with less pass rush could make him an ideal fit for Minnesota whose defensive experience is largely in its front.
“His coaching style is pretty much hardcore,” defensive lineman Carl Granderson told The Athletic in 2021. “He focuses and is big on technique and effort. He coaches pretty hard. He wants us to be big, nasty D linemen so we can play out there and destroy people. His coaching style has come a long way. It’s hardcore. In college at Wyoming, I had another coach that was just similar to it. So I’m used to it. You have to have tough skin in order to play D line for the New Orleans Saints.”
With Nielsen’s insight on the defense front, New Orleans runs defense out of a 4-3 base scheme — a sign Minnesota may revert to the scheme it had deployed before the new regime tasked Ed Donatell’s 3-4 scheme install failed this past season.
Nielsen had an offer to become LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2021, but turned it down to stay with the only team he’s coached for in the NFL.
Ryan Nielsen Helped Develop Record Draft Class
Before joining the Saints in 2017, Nielsen was the defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and run game coordinator for North Carolina State. Nielsen was credited with recruiting a group that grew to become a school-record seven NFL draftees in 2018, most notably linebacker Bradley Chubb, who was recruited as a defensive lineman.
“Coach Nielsen and those guys that recruited me really cared about me, and they made me feel like I was gonna make an impact on the team,” Chubb told The Athletic in 2018.
Despite wanting Chubb in his position room, Nielsen was open to Chubb’s interest at linebacker.
“He was in the linebackers meeting in the morning, and that afternoon in practice we threw him in there at defensive end. ‘Hey, Bradley, let’s see what you can do.’ And he put his hand in the grass and starts playing his a** off,” Nielsen said, per The Athletic.
Even without Chubb on his line, Nielsen’s entire 2014 defensive line class was drafted in 2018. Chubb went No. 5 overall to the Denver Broncos. B.J. Hill and Justin Jones went in the third round to the New York Giants and Los Angeles Chargers, respectively, and Kentavius Street was selected in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers.
Nielsen, a defensive line guru after playing the position at USC, encouraged his players to develop new techniques and helped them work outside their comfort zone both on and off the field through team-building activities like whitewater rafting.
“All the time and effort that (Nielsen) put into us made you want to pay him back,” Chubb told The Athletic. “That’s what made us so good: not only wanting to play for each other, but for coaches that cared about us.”
Ryan Nielsen’s Impact With Saints
While Saints head coach Dennis Allen calls plays on defense, Nielsen’s impact has not been limited to just his elite defensive line. He’s since contributed on the “back end” regarding game-planning alongside Allen and fellow co-coordinator Kris Richard.
“He came in and just killed it in the interview process,” Allen told The Athletic in 2021. “He’s extremely smart. He’s hardworking. He understands the game. … I’d say when he got here, there was a huge focus on, hey, here’s my guys and I’m going to get them going. As we’ve gone on, his total understanding of everything that we’re doing and the back end and the game of football, that’s where he’s really grown.
“Look, I want to hang on to him as long as I can, but I know that’s going to be hard to do. There’s always that thought that you want your guys to be able to move up the ladder and get those opportunities.”
While Nielsen is still growing into his role as a coordinator, his imprint on the defensive line cannot be ignored.
He’s helped Cam Jordan remain a perennial Pro Bowl selection well into his 30s. He helped develop Trey Hendrickson into a 13-sack edge rusher before signing with the Cincinnati Bengals and making back-to-back Pro Bowls. Most importantly, he’s helped the unit as a whole, not just their stars. Four defensive linemen tallied 3.5 sacks or more this season.