For a split second, Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun sold the notion that he was crashing down on the ballcarrier.
It was a fourth-and-1 play in the second quarter Thursday night, with the Panthers possessing the ball at the Falcons' 34-yard line. In the shotgun, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running the zone-read option, put the ball in running back Mike Davis' belly with Oluokun acting like he was going to follow suit.
But Oluokun noticed that the handoff wasn’t as firm as it would be on a traditional run. Therefore, he never fully committed to Davis. But Oluokun did just enough to make Bridgewater think he was following Davis to where he pulled the ball and started running to his right.
From there it was a footrace, with Oluokun making sure Bridgewater couldn’t turn upfield. He didn’t, with Oluokun forcing a turnover on downs.
“It was a zone read,” Oluokun said. “I know he pulls it sometimes, so I saw him kind of light with the handoff. He kept it and expected me to dive down. It was just a chase to the sideline, and I had to make sure I got him down really.”
Oluokun had himself a stellar outing during the Falcons' 25-17 win over the Panthers. He finished the game with five tackles, but was a part of two key fourth-down stops. In addition to the one he had in the second quarter, Oluokun came up with another early in the third quarter as well.
The Panthers received the ball to open the second half and faced another fourth-and-1, but at the Falcons' 42-yard line. Oluokun recognized the I-formation alignment and figured a run was coming. Sure enough, it did, with the Falcons' defensive line ceding zero ground. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett fought his way through two offensive linemen, which forced Davis to continue looking for a lane to the outside. Oluokun then used his power to push right tackle Taylor Moton backward, which knocked Davis to the ground for a loss of a yard.
“It was a formation we recognized,” Oluokun said. “We expected a fullback dive with the toss and then I saw the back go with the lead. It was beating the running back to the spot on that. Everyone was to wad it up and then make the play when it comes to you.”
There were numerous times like this where it seemed the Falcons knew what was coming defensively.
Bridgewater even said as much after the game.
“I really have to go back and look at the tape because it could be an execution thing on our behalf as well, but those guys had a good game plan,” Bridgewater said. “They knew some of the things that we wanted to do, and they had answers for it. You watch the tape and we have to evaluate what those guys did well and what we didn’t do so well.”
The Falcons, which allowed him to throw for 313 yards in Week 5, held Bridgewater to a season-low 176 yards through the air Thursday night. The Falcons blitzed him more often than any quarterback to date but also had a good grasp on what to expect.
Some of that had to do with the familiarity between the teams. Oluokun also credited the defense’s film study on such a short week to ensure it would be better prepared for the rematch.
“Whenever they lined up, we kind of knew the routes that were going to come from condensed formations and wide formations, or when they motioned guys,” Oluokun said.
“We knew the runs that were coming. We knew the runs that were coming in their dot formations. It’s just a lot of film study, really, and we were on point with it this week because we really needed a win.”
For the season, Oluokun leads the team with 54 total tackles and has recorded an interception and three forced fumbles. Those three forced fumbles all came in Oluokun’s 17 snaps against the Cowboys in Week 2 before suffering a hamstring injury.
Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said Oluokun’s plays are starting to become a routine thing.
“He’s having a phenomenal year,” Morris said. “He’s been one of the most consistent players that we’ve had on defense all year with how he’s played, how physical he’s played, getting after the ball, making big plays after big plays. He made another couple of them tonight. At this point, it’s not shocking. It’s almost expected for him.”
Oluokun, selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft, has emerged as one of the more dependable defenders for the Falcons. Now that the first eight games are in the books, Oluokun is hoping for marked improvement over the final eight games of the season.
“Obviously it was frustrating losing games we feel we should have won,” Oluokun said. “We’re definitely going to keep grinding and get wins. That’s the most important thing to get wins for the team and ourselves.”