X-factor: Falcons’ Isaiah Oliver has found a home at nickel back

Credit: AJC

Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich discusses cornerback Isaiah Oliver’s move to nickel back as possibly a future at safety.

Credit: AJC

The Falcons’ defense, coming off their most impressive showing of the season Sunday against the Raiders, will need an encore performance against the Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Man, they flew around,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They took the ball away exceptionally well. Just (from) watching that tape a couple of times already now, there were a number of guys that stepped up big. They had pressure on the quarterback. The ball was out. You name it. I think everyone was involved.

“Overall, it was a real-good team effort and a real-good defensive effort to get the takeaways.”

One of the keys for the Falcons has been the play of cornerback Isaiah Oliver moving to nickel back.

How Oliver plays in coverage and in helping to defend Saints quarterback Taysom Hill makes him the X-factor for this game.

The Falcons opened the season with Oliver, a second-round draft pick in 2018, playing right cornerback.

After Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris took over for Dan Quinn and Darqueze Dennard got healthy, the Falcons moved Oliver inside. Oliver and Kendall Sheffield were not holding up in coverage.

Inside covering slot receivers and supporting the run, Oliver is thriving.

“He’s proven to be a very good tackler,” Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “He’s got the ability to support the box. Play almost safety-like roles at times. He’s got the length, the size, willingness and tackling ability, all of that.”

The Falcons were scrambling in the secondary from the start of the season by trying to play a rookie at left corner. Then free safety Damontae Kazee was injured, rookie A.J. Terrell went on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Dennard was injured and spent a stint on injured reserve.

With all of the juggling, the Falcons’ pass defense is giving up 291.5 yards passing per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL.

But the Falcons are pleased with Oliver’s play inside.

“At the same time, we’re still, as an organization have the confidence to put him outside as well,” Ulbrich said. “So, he’s become kind of that swiss army knife for us and has (played) a lot of different roles.”

The Falcons generated five sacks and five takeaways against the Raiders. Oliver had three tackles.

In addition to playing multiple cornerback positions, Oliver could have some safety in his future.

“Who knows, potentially,” Ulbrich said. “I think he has the coverage ability of a corner right now. But he has this size and tackling ability of a safety. You see that with a lot of players as they transition later on in their careers. I know from experience that you don’t get faster as you get older. … Right now we can utilize him in a number of different ways for corner to safety to nickel.”

Falcons’ next four games

Saints at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

Falcons at Chargers at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 13

Buccaneers at Falcons at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20

Falcons at Chiefs at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 27

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