Falcons’ Foye Oluokun settling in at middle linebacker

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons’ new 3-4 defensive scheme produced a major shift of responsibilities.

Deion Jones was the middle linebacker in Dan Quinn’s 4-3 alignment for the past five seasons.

But the new regime handed the main job, which includes calling the signals, to Foye Oluokun, which freed Jones to attack more in space and around the edges of the defense.

Oluokun has thrived and ranks second in the NFL in tackles, with 166. He was named the NFC defensive player of the week Wednesday after his 14 tackles, one pass breakup and key interception in the 20-16 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

“He runs the show out there,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “He embraced his role and has run with it this year. It’s been fun to watch his progress.”

Oluokun intercepted Lions quarterback Tim Boyle on the Falcons’ 1-yard line with 33 seconds remaining to seal the victory.

“Well, I think he’s an ascending player,” Smith said of Oluokun, who was drafted in the sixth round out of Yale in 2018.

Jones has been fine with the switch in roles.

“Foye has been lighting it up,” Jones said. “Foye has been having a great season. It’s a product of his hard work and how he attacks every week. It’s paid off. He closed out a game, this last game especially when we needed it right in the red zone. That’s closer mentality. He is doing his thing. He took the middle linebacker role and ran away with it. That’s just the type of guy he is, and I’m happy for him.”

Jones has embraced his changed role.

“I used to be in the middle of the defense, now I’m on the side or the edges of the defense,” Jones said. “Just new angles. New type of responsibility. Blitzing a little more. Covering different types of space, tight ends and running backs. Other than that, it’s just basically me being on the edges of the defense instead of being in the middle. That’s the big difference.”

Oluokun talked to the other players on defense when they were in that tough spot of trying to save the game and defend 37 yards against the Lions.

“So, when we saw (Russell Gage’s fumble with 2:18 to play in the fourth quarter), we all huddled up there in the beginning,” Oluokun said. “I said, ‘If they don’t score a touchdown, we win the game.’ And eventually when they ran out of timeouts, it was like red-zone 7-on-7. ... Everybody calmed down from there and just made the play happen.”

Smith noted that New Orleans’ Demario Davis, Tampa Bay’s Devin White and Carolina’s Shaq Thompson are really good and instinctive linebackers the Falcons have faced this season.

“I’ve got a great appreciation for those type of players,” Smith said. “It will be the same things with (Buffalo’s Tremaine) Edmonds in the lineup this weekend up in Buffalo. So you know, I think he’s an ascending player. I don’t love comparisons. I’m happy with the way he’s progressing.”

After this season, the Falcons will need to rebuild the front of the defense and find some outside linebackers. By re-signing Oluokun and keeping him from reaching the free-agent market, the Falcons can stabilize the inside linebacker spots.

Oluokun’s mentality is refreshing.

“That’s how I grew up playing football, you’ve got to be gritty, not pretty,” Oluokun said. “A lot of times, you’ve got to get your way through problems and get your way to the football. Make plays on the ball when it’s time to be made.”

Oluokun became the first Falcons player to produce at least 14 tackles and an interception in a game since Curtis Lofton in Week 17 of the 2011 season. Oluokun also won the player-of-the-week award in Week 9 of last season.

Oluokun is the fourth Falcon to be named player of the week this season, joining Jones (Week 7), Matt Ryan (Week 9) and Thomas Morstead (Week 12).

“It shows what kind of season that he’s had and the impact that he’s had on a lot of football games for us,” Smith said. “Certainly, when you win and the team plays well, individual accolades usually follow. He’s a great teammate. It takes a team to go out there and win, function as a defense. Foye runs the show back there. It’s a good job by him.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Combined ShapeCaption
The Falcons lineback sealed the 20-16 victory with an interception at the 1-yard line with less than a minute remaining.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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