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'Gosh, he's back quick': How Jeff Okudah is playing some of his best football after returning from injury

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Jeff Okudah missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury but the cornerback hasn't missed a beat since his return.

Not only that, he's back and possibly better than ever.

His level of play has even surprised Falcons defense coordinator Ryan Nielsen at this point in the season.

"He's seven weeks off and then all of a sudden he's out there, he's starting, he's making plays," Nielsen said last week. "I saw that in practice, and you're like 'Okay, now let's just keep progressing with that more during the game,' but that (Week 6 PBU) was like 'Man, gosh, he's back quick.'"

Nielsen said he thinks Okudah is playing the best football of his career with the Falcons through five games, three of which the cornerback played at least 95% of the snaps.

And the numbers speak to that assertion.

Okudah has been targeted 16 times and allowed only five receptions as the nearest defender, according to Next Gen Stats. Quarterbacks have just a 46.9 passer rating while he's defending targeted receivers.

Amongst cornerbacks with at least 100 snaps played, Okudah ranks No. 1 overall in completion percentage over expectation when targeted at -27.3% (expected completion is zero percent), per Next Gen Stats.

While the fourth-year cornerback passes the eye test on the field, he passes the ear test, too. Nielsen said that, in the cornerback's first game back, he could hear the crushing sound of Okudah's tackles from the sidelines.

Making that impact early on despite missing most of training camp, the entire preseason and the first two regular season games with injury wasn't a tall task for the cornerback. Okudah has been through worse after rupturing his Achilles tendon in Week 1 of his sophomore season.

"It was a more intense injury the first time," Okudah said. "So once I was able to overcome that hurdle, I know going forward I could always pull from that experience."

He learned throughout his first comeback to focus on one singular thing to improve every day and move on from there.

Nielsen said Okudah's quick acclimation is a testament to the work the cornerback puts individually and with coaches.

"He's a willing worker; he is always trying to get better with communication," Nielsen said last week. "He's early on the practice field, he stays late, he's always working to get better, and that combination is really cool to see — I think that's what you're seeing on the field."

Multiple times, Okudah has entered the locker room post-practice long after other players have hit the showers. He retreats to his seat with a tablet in hand, studying the practice the Falcons just had. While organized chaos ensues with teammates chatting, changing and occasionally shooting hoops; Okudah is head down, locked into the tape.

"(I'm) always trying to just get that first impression of how practice went," Okudah said. "Sometimes you feel like you did something out there, and it looks different on film. So just making sure everything's on the same page."

There's still room to grow, too. Okudah said he's feeling healthier each week, but he's still putting in more work into the rehab process.

If you ask Jerry Gray, Falcons assistant coach/defense, Okudah has yet to reach his ceiling this season.

"To be honest, he's still coming on. One of the biggest things I see is getting him in supreme condition," Gray said. "He's getting into the groove."

Nielsen said that emphasizes just how bright Okudah's future is.

"Even last game (against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) you felt it at times. He was all over the place," Nielsen said Thursday. "That's where you're thinking 'Oh, man. He's gonna take the next step and he will because he works at it."

The next step? Consistency.

Okudah has shown blinding flashes of what he's capable of each game. In the Falcons' last outing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was a fourth-quarter PBU in a game that went down to the wire. Nielsen said once he gets more into football shape he'll be quicker to make more of those plays throughout a game.

"It's exciting," Nielsen said, "it really is."

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