Which Falcons defensive back will the first one off the bench in nickel packages?

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The Falcons will surely play less base defense than sub-packages, given Dean Pees’ history. During the 2018 season, the Titans dialed up a nickel personnel package on 73% of defensive snaps — ninth-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Nickel and dime personnel packages are just designating how many defensive backs are on the field; generally, in base defenses, there are four defensive backs on the field, then five in nickel, and six in dime personnel packages. I want to explore which of the Falcons’ backend defenders is most likely to be the first one to come off the bench.

For this exercise, I will say the two starting corners will be A.J. Terrell and Fabian Moreau, while veterans Erik Harris and Duron Harmon fill the safety spots, leaving three candidates to be the first defensive back off the bench — Richie Grant, Isaiah Oliver, and Darren Hall.

There are slight nuances in nickel packages that need to be noted. In most cases, when a safety is the extra defensive back on the field, it is designated as big nickel, while a corner is considered simply nickel. In those situations when a safety is needed, I believe it’ll be Grant because of his ability to play any role in any coverage Dean Pees decides to deploy.

Grant possesses sideline-to-sideline range with explosive acceleration, which allows him to take tight ends and running backs in man coverage, not just cover ground as a single-high or split-zone safety. Grant has incredible ball skills but packs a punch as a run-defender. He’s likely a free safety for the Falcons in the future, but with that said, he can comfortably work in the slot. He can even play in the box when needed due to his efforts in run defense and physical nature.

However, Isaiah Oliver won’t go down without a fight. Given his background as a corner, you have to assume Oliver is better (at least right now) than Grant in coverage. Oliver is a breakout candidate of mine.

Interim head coach Raheem Morris named Jeff Ulbrich as the de facto defensive coordinator, who had to be behind the decision to kick Oliver inside — saying this about the 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.”

Dean Pees reiterated in a press conference that the Falcons would blitz anyone from anywhere, which bodes well for Oliver. Slot or nickel backs are usually tasked with supporting the run more and blitzing more than boundary corners due to their proximity to the ball, which is exactly where Oliver showed life in the latter half of 2020. Versatility is key at every level of a Dean Pees defense: defensive linemen need to be able to line up in multiple techniques, linebackers need to be able to blitz and drop into coverage among normal responsibilities, and defensive backs need to support the run and blitz among normal responsibilities — exactly how Ulbrich described him, a Swiss Army Knife.

In 16 games last year, Oliver recorded 70 tackles, four tackles for loss, six passes defended, one sack, and one forced fumble. The new staff has noticed the improved play as well. Jon Hoke, Falcons’ secondary coach, said he was impressed with Oliver’s production once he made the position switch — speaking on the kind of player he could be

The new coaching staff knows the type of player Oliver can be as the position change showed clear improvements in his game. He made an impressive one-handed interception in a recent practice, which should remind us how physically capable this guy really is.


There is still one name we haven’t gotten to that I believe could be a darkhorse candidate for the team’s nickel back — Darren Hall. In fact, I think Hall will eventually become a two-position starter on this defense — safety and corner.

Hall’s rapid diagnostic skills, lightning burst, and quick-footed backpedal make him versatile in both situations; he is aggressive in the run game, showing the ability and willingness to attack bigger running backs without fear. His best work came in zone coverage, which is why I believe he’s better suited at this point in his career to patrol the slot instead of the boundary. In Talkin’ Birdy’s interview with Scott Bair, the Falcons Digital Managing Editor told us that he couldn’t help but notice Hall showing up all over the field during training camp practices.

There will be situations where Pees calls on Grant to be the nickel back, while in other weeks, he could call on Oliver or Hall for a better coverage defender. If the offensive opponent runs multiple tight end sets, most cases would call for a safety to be the extra defensive back to match size a bit closer. If an opposing offense runs three wide receiver sets, expect the staff to match a cornerback in these cases. This will be an interesting development all year long, though I eventually believe Grant will solidify himself as a starter, which will shake this whole thing up again.




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