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Analyzing Dean Pees nickel rotation, why it's not his ideal scenario after losing Isaiah Oliver

The defensive coordinator said he wants a singular player at nickel. It's not a position he wants to rotate the way he has in 2021. Does this open the door to potentially resign Oliver? 


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If there's one thing you can count on when it comes to Dean Pees, it's his honesty. He's as honest as any coach in the league may ever be in a press conference scenario. That's why it came as no surprise when Pees answered as honestly as he did when Scott Bair asked the defensive coordinator about his rotation at nickel.

"You've used a lot of different people in that slot spot, and those guys have a lot of different sizes and skillsets," Bair asked Pees on Thursday. "How has that impacted the way you like to run the defense? Has that had any impact at all?"

Pees, without a moment's hesitation: "It's had a lot of impact."

That's the short answer. The long answer is a bit more fascinating.


Playing with a revolving door at nickel is not how Pees wants to run his defense. Look at his film at Baltimore or Tennessee or New England. He had one nickel. One singular guy he relied on to wear a number of hats in the slot.

When he took the defensive coordinator job in Atlanta in 2021, Pees cut on the Falcons 2020 tape to find his new slot. He zeroed in on Isaiah Oliver immediately, a cornerback one could perhaps argue was playing out of position for much of his time in Atlanta. Oliver reminded Pees of his former nickels: Ladarius Webb in Baltimore and Logan Ryan in Tennessee.

Based on this comparison, it seemed quite obvious that Oliver didn't need to play outside any longer. He could better help the defense in the slot. That's what Pees felt, anyways. So, he converted Oliver to the team's primary nickel.

It's a move that worked very well for both Oliver and Pees. Oliver was playing as confident and consistent as he had ever played in a Falcons uniform. Meanwhile, Pees didn't have to fit the scheme to Oliver. Oliver fit the scheme already.

This near-perfect marriage didn't last long, though, as Oliver suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Falcons Week 4 matchup with the Washington Football Team. It was a gut punch for Oliver on a contract year. It was also a blow the Falcons are still - nearly 13 weeks later - trying to recover from.

"If Isaiah was here," Pees said point-blank on Thursday, "he'd still be in the slot."

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun #54 and cornerback Isaiah Oliver #26 make a tackle against the Washington Football Team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, October 3, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

We can infer Pees said this for two reasons. The first is pretty simple: Oliver was playing very well in this scheme, as well as we've seen him play since he entered the league. Playing the way he was, no one on this Falcons defense was going to usurp him.

The second reason, though, has a foundation in Pees' philosophy, which is to only have one nickel. With one nickel, there's unpredictability. With multiple players rotating into the slot, there's a pattern that offenses can figure out how to exploit.

"It's not going to be hard for an offense to watch the film and say, 'OK, well if this guy is in the game, here's what they're really trying to do. And if this guy is in the game, here's what they're trying to do,'" Pees explained. "You need to have a guy."

A guy. One. Singular. Not plural. And in case you missed the emphasis, he said it again.

"The perfect world for us is (having) a right and left safety, a right and left corner and I want a nickel. A nickel," Pees emphasized. "That's what we want, and we haven't been able to do that, whether it be injuries or certain guys not being able to do certain things that we need to do. So, we've had to switch them out. That's not what we prefer."

It's been quite the rotation at nickel since Oliver's injury. Pees has deployed Richie Grant, Avery Williams, Erik Harris and - sparingly - Darren Hall, too. And yet, no one has filled Oliver's shoes, even though Grant has made some progress. There are just too many differing body types in this group, too many different skillsets, perhaps too little experience, too, with three of the four being rookies. At the end of the day, it's too many players for Pees' liking. He wants one nickel.


Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant #27 drops back during a game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, November 14, 2021. (Photo by Ben Ludeman/Atlanta Falcons)

So, that brings us to crux of this story: Considering all Pees has said about wanting one nickel, would the Falcons consider resigning Oliver in 2022?

Based on Thursday's comments alone, one may lean towards thinking they should.

It's an argument that makes sense. Prior to his injury, Oliver had finally found his long-awaited niche in Pees' scheme. He was productive in the slot, and he made Pees' job easier as the defensive coordinator didn't have to change up his scheme at all to fit Oliver.

From a salary cap perspective, the Falcons should have the money to work out a short-term deal with Oliver. His market value will likely be down because of his injury. And while betting on a player coming off injury is always a gamble, players do come back from season-ending knee injuries all the time. If Oliver is 100 percent by the start of free agency, there's a solid argument here to resign him.

Essentially, the Falcons could bring him back on a one-year, prove-it deal.

There's something to be said about bringing back a guy who was trending in the right direction so early on in the initial install process. The Falcons would be hard pressed to find another one-man show at nickel who knows the intricacies of Pees' scheme the way Oliver does. He may be coming off a significant injury, but the argument is a sound one to potentially bring him back in 2022.

After all, Pees said it himself: If Oliver was still around, he'd be the Falcons nickel without comment, concern or hesitation.


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