In their 40-23 victory against the Minnesota Vikings, the Atlanta Falcons defense turned in by far its best performance of the season. It began with an interception by Deion Jones, included a goal-line stand at the 1-yard line and allowed the Falcons to earn their first victory of 2020.
The game also served as a showcase for two emerging players who could be staples for Atlanta's defense in the future: Cornerback A.J. Terrell and linebacker Foye Oluokun.
That statement shouldn't come as a surprise to any Falcons fan that has been paying attention. Terrell was the team's first-round pick this April and has started every game he's been available for an Atlanta team that needed to find a playmaker in the secondary. Oluokun, a former sixth-round pick in 2018, moved into a full-time starting role this season after the departure of De'Vondre Campbell after serving as a key role player for the Falcons.
If the Falcons defense is to actually sustain the improvement it showed on Sunday, it will need to have players outside of Deion Jones or Grady Jarrett take their games to a new level. Terrell and Oluokun showed that they may be capable of doing such a thing.
Among the Falcons who played more than 32 defensive snaps on Sunday, Terrell and Oluokun earned the third- and fourth-highest grades from Pro Football Focus, respectively, behind only Jones and Jarrett. Terrell's grade of 85.3 ranked sixth among all NFL cornerbacks in Week 6, while Oluokun's grade of 74.8 was 10th among linebackers.
On the first play of the Vikings' second offensive drive, Terrell showed his ability to diagnose a play and his reliability as an open-field tackler. Lined up against Justin Jefferson in man coverage, Terrell followed the Vikings' star rookie across the field in motion. Minnesota then sent Jefferson back to his original spot to create leverage for him against Terrell with the plan of getting him the ball in space.
Terrell froze for just a moment because of the play-action run aimed at the side of the field Jefferson motioned to, but as soon as he recognized the fake and understood where Kirk Cousins was going with the ball, he took off to the spot and chopped down Jefferson. There was a lot of pressure produced by the Falcons, but even if this was a clean play for Minnesota, Terrell likely still gets there.
Two plays later, Terrell again made an impact as a tackler by taking down receiver Chad Beebe just inches short of the first-down marker.
Oluokun's impact on the game really started with Atlanta's goal line stand in the second quarter. Set up with a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, the Vikings ran Alexander Mattison off the left side with a fullback leading the way. Oluokun immediately knew where the play was headed and showed off his short-area athleticism to knife into the backfield and stop Mattison for a 1-yard loss.
Midway through the second quarter, Terrell got the first interception of his career and the second of the game for Atlanta. With the Falcons in a Cover 2 shell, Terrell passed off the receiver he initially lined up against to the deep safety on his side of the field. Understanding the down and distance, Terrell read Cousins on the play and broke on the short receiver just a Cousins released the pass.
It was a difficult ball to corral, but Terrell proved athletic enough to make the play.
The first interception of Oluokun's career came on the Vikings' very next possession. Just as Minnesota was stringing together its best drive of the game late in the second quarter, defensive lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner tipped a Cousins pass at the line of scrimmage and the ball careened right to Oluokun.
"He's becoming one of the premier linebackers in the league," Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris said of Oluokun.
While Terrell and Oluokun played well throughout the game, they were especially impactful in key moments and with big-time plays. Those back-to-back big-time plays allowed Atlanta to head into halftime with a 20-0 lead.
Jefferson did a lot of damage to the Falcons in the second half, but it was largely in garbage time with the game well in hand. He did score Minnesota's first touchdown of the game in the third quarter while lined up against Terrell, but that is the life of a cornerback in the NFL.
What should provide optimism for Falcons fans with these two young defenders is that they are showing great feel in zone coverage. Oluokun is communicating well in the middle of Atlanta's defense, an important part of zone coverage, and he's recognizing when players are coming in and out of his zone. Terrell shows great discipline with his zone responsibilities, staying deep when needed but also understanding when he can take chances for big plays.
The two have already proved they are reliable run defenders both in space and in the box, so the growth in coverage will help them truly become well-rounded players for a defense that needs more of them.
Terrell and Oluokun played big roles in Atlanta's first win of the season, and if the Falcons do intend on turning this season around, they will have to continue to do so.