Fight or flight: Previewing the Falcons defensive coaching staff

Illustration by Myah Anglin |The Signal

Now that I went and had my tangent about keeping Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, we can continue looking at the finished staff for Arthur Smith’s debut year as a head coach.

Unlike the construction of the Atlanta Falcons’ offense, Smith might have taken inspiration from Sean McVay’s early days with the Los Angeles Rams. Paraphrasing the explanation, McVay knew he wanted to focus on the offense and be the head coach.

So, what did McVay do for the defense? Only hire the then-69-year-old defensive guru Wade Phillips. One of the most respected and reputable coaches in the NFL to oversee his defense so McVay could focus on the offense was a humble and wise move by McVay, not allowing his ego to overshadow the needs of the team.

It worked out well enough that Smith looks to be following that model by hiring the 71-year-old Dean Pees to lead the culture change on defense.

Aside from the familiar Pees, what does the rest of the defensive staff look like?

Gary Emanuel, defensive line coach: The 62-year-old defensive line coach brings a wealth of knowledge since he started his coaching career ten years ago in the college ranks. In 2011, he was the defensive line coach and defensive coordinator at Purdue University. A year later, he made the jump to the NFL, coaching the defensive line for the Indianapolis Colts from 2012-2017, and then hitched himself to the Giants defensive line from 2018-2019.


Emanuel brings experience and knowledge from all around the league, allowing him to help fix one of the most constantly awful positional groups since the Falcons’ inception in 1966.

Frank Bush, linebackers coach: If Bush’s name sits at the edge of recognition, there is a reason for that. Before joining Smith and Pees’ staff, his last gig was with the New York Jets, becoming the interim defensive coordinator after Gregg Williams was fired late in the 2020 season.

Of course, it is semi-hard to judge how the 58-year-old Georgia native will do in his job based on his 2019-2020 run with a currently dysfunctional Jets franchise, but he was also the Dolphins assistant head coach from 2017-2018. Bush looks like a future head coach candidate, so I will be optimistic about his linebackers’ leadership.

Jon Hoke, defensive backs coach: Rounding out the three primary levels of the defense is the 64-year-old coach Hoke, who has logged 40 years of coaching, with 16 of those years being in the NFL. Hoke’s last stop was as the defensive coordinator for Maryland from 2019-2020. From 2016 to 2018, he was the defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so he is returning from the college ranks to come back to the NFL. 

Fight: Age and diversity

When looking at the entire coaching staff’s ages, there is a glaring discrepancy. The defense features older coaches while the offense is younger, which fits well for the future. Pees has retired twice already. Who knows how long he wants to stay around this time?

Pees and Smith have two Black assistants, Frank Bush and Gary Emanuel, who could be in line to ascend to the defensive coordinator spot when Pees retires again.