Isaiah Oliver started last season at right cornerback opposite A.J. Terrell but moved inside to the slot after Darqueze Dennard returned from injury and Raheem Morris took over for Dan Quinn. Slot corners are usually responsible for supporting against the run more than they would on the boundary due to their proximity to the line of scrimmage, and Oliver looked much more comfortable in this area. Playing inside instead of on the boundary allows him to be more proactive in blitz packages too, which is exactly what Dean Pees tasks his nickel backs with.
When Quinn was fired and Morris was promoted to interim head coach, Jeff Ulbrich was named the defensive coordinator and had this to say pertaining to Oliver’s position change:
“He’s proven to be a very good tackler. He’s got the ability to support the box. Play almost safety-like roles at times. He’s got length, the size, willingness and tackling ability, all of that.”
Ulbrich also called him a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ in his new role — a safety-corner-nickel back. The past regime might’ve discovered Oliver’s niche, and the new regime has noticed. In a media session, secondary coach Jon Hoke said that he was impressed with his play once he moved inside — pointing out the kind of player the former second-round pick could be.
Secondary coach Jon Hoke was really impressed with the way A.J. Terrell played in his rookie season. Hoke also said when Isaiah Oliver was moved inside you could really see the player he can be. #Falcons
— Kelsey Conway (@KelseyLConway) May 5, 2021
An undervalued part of Oliver’s game is his intelligence, which is on display when he’s in the slot. Not only can he tackle at a high level, but he can also communicate with linebackers — benefiting the defense as a whole. The former Colorado Buffalo is a team-first player who will do whatever the defensive coordinator asks him. In 2020, he graded much better against the run and rushing the passer than he faired in coverage. Pees has been adamant about fitting his scheme to the personnel afforded to him. With Fabian Moreau likely starting opposite Terrell, the nickel back role could be a battle between Oliver and second-round pick Richie Grant.
Pees dialed up nickel coverage on 73% of defensive snaps in 2018, which was good for ninth-most in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. When a defensive coordinator deploys more defensive backs on the field, they will be required to support the run as much as defending against the pass — something Oliver has shown an ability and willingness to do.
The Falcons defensive coordinator reiterated in a press conference that the Falcons would blitz anyone from anywhere, an area Oliver has proven to be productive in. In the video below, the nickel back on the left side of the formation comes to pressure the quarterback — a similar role we could see Oliver occupy.
Can’t stop laughing at the brilliance of this defensive scheme. #Titans rush 4—one of which is a corner, Jayon Brown sprints back into coverage, and Wake destroys the edge. Browns all kinds of confused. Dean Pees, you wild man. pic.twitter.com/ihbBGZwLrD
— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisWSMV) September 9, 2019
If Oliver can improve upon his limited experience in 2020, Atlanta’s defense could be better than expected. He was serviceable last year; Pees should use him similarly because we know he can’t perform adequately on the boundary. The new regime noticed the difference in the last half of the 2020 season, and fans could see a rejuvenated Isaiah Oliver in 2021.
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