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How Isaiah Oliver has grown, developed and thrived in Dean Pees' defense

Veteran defensive back had nine tackles, one sack, one quarterback hit, and two pass deflections against Arizona, playing both cornerback and safety

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons missed Isaiah Oliver while he was rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn ACL, an injury that kept him out most of the 2021 campaign and early parts of the 2022 regular season.

"When we lost him, you guys saw it," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said on Oct. 20. "We had a different nickel almost every game somebody tried it, and it just never had the cohesiveness…just the communication, the verbal part of it was just so much different. It's really remarkable."


Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals was an indication of how competent Oliver's play was. On the second play of the Cardinals' opening drive, Oliver lined up at cornerback and exploded off the line of scrimmage, sacking quarterback David Blough for a 7-yard loss.

"They came out empty and we just had the pressure on already," Oliver said after the game. "I know that, if it's empty and they slide the other way, I'll be free and get there. Richie [Grant] made a great play coming down, took away his high read off my receiver, and so he had no choice but to take the sack for real."

When the Falcons' defense needed a play, Oliver delivered time-and-time again. His instinctual awareness and natural ballhawk ability gave way to nine tackles, one sack, one quarterback hit, and two pass deflections on the day.

"You could see he had a big impact on the game," head coach Arthur Smith said on Monday. "And, when you have a smart player that's versatile and understands the scheme and angles, it certainly helps. And I think he's gotten healthier. I'm really happy for him. He's another one of those guys that's fun to coach, consistent, so I was happy to see that yesterday."

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver #26 breaks up a pass during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, January 1, 2023. (Photo by Mitchell Martin/Atlanta Falcons)

Pees and Smith consistently speak about Oliver's versatility as a player; a guy that can play "multiple spots" for the Falcons defense. There were numerous factors that went into Oliver rotating between nickel cornerback and safety against the Cardinals, but it was primarily due to the game plan, Smith said.

"They play a lot of that spread-out and 11-personnel," Smith said. "They've got a lot of wideouts they like to roll in there. They have a pass-catching tight end in Trey McBride. A lot of it was the game plan."

Oliver added: "Just kind of scheme wise, just something that we wanted to look into going into this week. They have a lot of 10-personnel where they get a lot of receivers out there, which is something different from the last few weeks where we were playing teams with more 21-or-22 personnel stuff. It was just a scheme thing and I thought it worked out pretty well."

Oliver embraces the challenge of being a multi-dimensional player. Having an extended role on defense is something he feels confident about at this point in his career. When at nickel cornerback, Oliver is efficient in man coverage, as well as blitzing, and is a reliable on-ball defender. He also played 12 snaps at free safety against Arizona, per Pro Football Focus -- he only played two previous snaps there all season -- and performed well in that role.

"I feel like I have a really good understanding of the defense now this year in comparison to last year," Oliver said. "And I understand what he wants out of those positions, so I kind of accepted that role in being able to help other guys out. If they have questions, whether it's about safety, corner, or nickel, I feel like I can answer those questions for them."

Entering the final week of the season against their NFC South divisional opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons look to close out the season on a high note. Oliver said it's all about focusing on what they did well against Arizona and building upon that.

"Obviously, they got a high-profile offense," he said. "We're going to have to stop the run first and foremost and then get after Tom Brady and hopefully, pull out a W."

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