Falcons’ Foye Oluokun keeps focus on forcing turnovers

The first mistake was leaving Foye Oluokun with only a tight end to block him.

To the Las Vegas Raiders’ defense, they probably didn’t think the third-year Falcons linebacker was going to be used as a blitzer on this particular play, even though he lined up on the left edge of the formation. But with a little more than eight minutes to go in the first quarter, the Raiders snapped the ball and shifted their protection to the left, which saw tight end Darren Waller matched up to block Oluokun. Oluokun took a step inside, extended his arm on Waller and then pivoted to the outside.

From there, Oluokun had a free run at quarterback Derek Carr.

Oluokun did more than simply sack Carr, too. As he went in for the tackle, he motioned his right arm up in the air and punched down on the ball. His effort on the play paid off, as he stripped the ball away from Carr, which allowed defensive lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner to recover the fumble.

That play was one of five turnovers in the Falcons’ 43-6 blowout win over the Raiders.

For Oluokun, he’s developed a tendency to force fumbles this season. He now has four for the season -- three recorded in 17 snaps against the Dallas Cowboys to go with the one he had against the Raiders -- which puts him tied for the NFL lead with Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

When Oluokun was in college at Yale, he said his team worked on stripping the football in the “Peanut” drill, named for former Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who recorded 44 forced fumbles in 13 NFL seasons. Tillman, who crafted what was known as the “Peanut punch,” had a career best 10 forced fumbles with the Bears in 2012.

Even so, Oluokun said it was with the Falcons that attacking the ball became more emphasized. And like Tillman, Oluokun has shown a knack to strip the ball away from opposing offenses.

“It was taught here, for sure,” Oluokun said. “The ball is everything, and in college you don’t realize it. In the NFL, that is so crucial to get the ball out of the other offense’s hands. In college I was just running and hitting, really. I didn’t have a knack for punching the ball out. We had the ‘Peanut’ drill, but it wasn’t really emphasized with the importance of getting the ball. The ball can really change who you are as a player, so that’s something I’ll always be gunning for.”

During the Falcons’ up-and-down season, Oluokun has been a bright spot for the defense. He leads the team with 74 tackles, even though he was forced to miss the Week 3 game against the Bears with a hamstring injury.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris praised his predecessor, former coach Dan Quinn, along with other defensive coaches for teaching Oluokun not only how to finish tackles, but how to force turnovers. Before this season, Oluokun recorded only one forced fumble in each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

“You gotta give a lot of credit to the defensive staff,” Morris said. “It’s something that we’ve been doing here since Dan Quinn showed up, talking about getting the ball out. (Quinn) was a constant advocate of that. It continues on. The players are starting to take ownership of it. When they’re coming out there playing the ball the way they’re able to play, and obviously Foye started it off in the early part of the season, knocking out about three, and he’s continued to go after the ball throughout the season. He’s done a really great job of it.”

In addition to his ability to punch out the ball, the Falcons have used Oluokun, as well as other linebackers and defensive backs, to rush the passer after injuries and other issues popped up with the defensive line. With Oluokun, this role has been quite effective, especially of late.

Over the past three games, Oluokun has recorded two sacks and five quarterback hits. Against the Denver Broncos, Oluokun posted four of those quarterback hits, along with his first career sack. Whether it’s sacking the quarterback, stripping the ball away or covering a receiving option, Oluokun said he’s up for whatever task that needs to be accomplished.

“I’ve noticed I’m not just a stagnant, stack-behind-the-ball linebacker right now,” Oluokun said. “Sometimes I’ll be on the edge, sometimes I’m covering a lot of tight ends or flexed out a little bit. And sometimes I’ll be a little bit more behind the ball. Whatever role they choose to use me as, they’re expecting me to do it well. Going after the quarterback has been fun, for sure, but I feel I could be more productive with more time at it.”