FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was the third quarter of the Falcons loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday. Atlanta was in a position to cut Tampa Bay's lead to three, and the defense was showing out in a way we hadn't seen them do up until that point.
As I went to Twitter to say as much, a random tweet caught my eye. It read simply (and I'm paraphrasing, of course, because it was only on my screen for a couple seconds): "Perhaps I should take back three years worth of mean tweets directed towards Isaiah Oliver."
I laughed, and made a note about the tweet in my notebook.
Ever since coming onto the Falcons beat in 2020, I quickly noticed how little this fan base cared for Oliver. There were radio stations that wouldn't even say his name when the hosts were asking me about him. They would simply use his number as an identifier. As 2020 went on, I wondered about Oliver being the favored punchline of Falcons Twitter. He wasn't perfect at cornerback, far from it. And he struggled against certain teams. Quarterbacks had a 75.6 percent completion rate against Oliver, and receivers averaged 12.5 yards per catch.
In a year that saw AJ Terrell shine, Oliver faltered, and he took a lot of heat for it.
Towards the midway point of the season, the former coaching staff decided to try something new with Oliver: They moved him inside to nickel. Thinking back to the move, Oliver said it was very much a "learning on the fly" few weeks for him. Everybody talked extensively last year about how having no OTAs affected the incoming rookie class and free agent market, but very few people discuss why having no OTAs mattered for a player like Oliver, a player still trying to find his niche in the league.
Now inside full time in Dean Pees' defense, Oliver is playing with more composure and confidence than we've ever seen him play with before. He's a role player in Pees' blitzing packages, and Arthur Smith has commended him just this past week on his positioning in coverage. As each day passes it's become more and more evident that Oliver has likely found that long-awaited niche. Even with a small sample size, the numbers support Oliver's effectiveness in stopping the run and a decrease in his average yards per catch allowed. What once was 12-plus yards has dropped to an average of eight yards per catch this year.
After practice on Wednesday, I really wanted to bring this tweet up to Oliver himself. I was worried, though. I would imagine the criticism of his play over the last few years hasn't been easy on him. I didn't want to rub salt in old wounds, but I truly wanted to know what he thought of this tweet. To my relative surprised, he laughed.
"Oh, that's funny," Oliver said with an easy smile. And it truly seemed that he meant it.
As he sobered, he simply said that any change in opinion people have about him is a credit to the work people don't see him putting in.
Oliver is a very good example of players in this league that fly under the radar - or in this case, become public enemy No. 1 for some fans - as they get their bearings in the league. Not everyone shines in their rookie year. Not everyone shines in their second, or third year. Sometimes the clichés of actually "trusting the process" and "doing the work" rings true for players. It does for Oliver.
"Sometimes it takes longer than you might want it to," Oliver said. "Sometimes opportunities don't come around."
But whatever the case may be, Oliver said sooner or later, there will be a breakthrough.
So, what changed for Oliver this year? A lot of it has to do with getting more comfortable at the position in the first place. Oliver would be the first to say he's playing more free and with more confidence because of the reps he got at the position this offseason.
And from the get-go, this defensive coaching staff wanted Oliver inside. When asked what traits Oliver possessed that made Pees confident in his ability to play nickel full-time, the defensive coordinator said there are three things he looks for when finding a proper slot guy: "Being able to blitz, being able to cover, being able to play zone."
Cutting on the 2021 film, you see Oliver showcasing each of these abilities upon Pees' request. Pees said he knew Oliver would fit at nickel because he reminds Pees of his former nickels: Lardarius Webb when Pees was with Baltimore and Logan Ryan when he was with Tennessee.
these abilities he actually reminds Pees of his former nickels: Lardarius Webb in Baltimore and Logan Ryan when Pees was with Tennessee.
"Both of those guys we pressured a lot with. We did certain things with them," Pees said. "When I watched Isaiah a year ago, I really felt like that he had a lot of those same traits that those guys had, which is good for our system because I didn't have to change the system just because we had a different guy inside that can't do those things. I thought he could do those things."
And through two games - even in two losses - he has.
And for the first time since he came into the league, Oliver looks to have settled into a role that one could argue better suits him. There are still things he's learning: He said being more active in defending the run was something he really had to dive into. He didn't really have to worry too much about potentially picking up a block from a guard, tackle, fullback or tight end cross firing from the backside when he was on an island with a wide receiver outside. Now, he does. Oliver said because of this shift in mindset, his eyes are softer. He can see the full scope of the offensive formation clearer. He's picking up on movements faster.
But all of this improvement doesn't happen if Oliver never really gets a true chance to stretch his legs in a new spot to begin with. When the coaching staff came in with the idea in mind that Oliver would be better suited inside than outside, Oliver ran with the opportunity. He worked to renew himself, building upon last year's sample size to morph himself into a more reliable figure of this defense. He's not exactly where he wants to be, but it's definitely better than where he was.
So, it's a move that - early - seems to be paying off for a player who took every blow - or mean tweet - in stride.
"It's actually been a lot of fun," Oliver said of playing inside full time. "I feel like it's something that I can understand, and something that I am growing into, especially in this defense."
The Atlanta Falcons push through a rainy practice as they prepare to face the New York Giants. Take a look at the best images in this gallery,
+ Terrell (concussion), Russell Gage (ankle) and Frank Darby (calf) were not practicing on Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice, too. This doesn't bode well for their return for Sunday's game, but still doesn't rule them out, either. The Falcons won't be likely to make a decision on Terrell or Gage until closer to kickoff on Sunday. As Scott Bair explained in Thursday's injury report: "Head coach Arthur Smith won't make a determination on Gage's ankle issue until closer to kickoff. Terrell must cleared the NFL's concussion protocol before he can get back in action."
+ If Terrell can't play on Sunday, the Falcons seem confident in TJ Green's ability to hold his own in Terrell's spot. Pees said in his Thursday press conference that Green "earned the right to play" last Sunday. The defensive coordinator said there were packages together with Green at both safety and corner. He had to play more corner against the Bucs because of Terrell's absence, but it was the plan all along to get him in.
+ When it comes to the punter situation, Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams said they'll take the competition between Cameron Nizialek and Dustin Colquitt to the end of the week before making a decision as to who they carry into Sunday's game.
+ The Falcons signed defensive tackle Anthony Rush to the practice squad on Thursday afternoon. In a corresponding move, Atlanta placed running back Caleb Huntley on IR.