Falcons cornerback (26) Isaiah Oliver, center, leads the celebration after he tackled Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz just short of the first down on a fourth down attempt with less than a minute to play to take over on downs and hold on to a 24-20 victory Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Photo: Curtis Compton/TNS
Photo: Curtis Compton/TNS

Class of 2018 paying early dividends for Falcons

Isaiah Oliver had a good idea Sunday night that the Eagles were likely to throw to Zach Ertz on fourth down and that he was probably going work inside the hash marks, so it worked out nicely for the Falcons when he was there to tackle the Philadelphia tight end just short of a first down to finish off Philly with 30 seconds left.

The second-most memorable play from the Falcons’ first win was one of several made by the Falcons’ second-year players, who are very much in the middle of what the team is doing. 

This may be confirmation if you put stock into the suggestion that football players improve more between their first and second seasons than at any other time. 

All six members of the Falcons’ 2018 draft class are on the team, and five have contributed significantly through two games. Plus, an undrafted player from 2018, offensive tackle Matt Gono, may be verging on participation. 

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley leads the team in receptions. Running back Ito Smith has the most rushing yards. Linebacker Foye Oluokun – who as a rookie finished second on the team in tackles after he was forced into a starting role – is right in the mix as a reserve. Wide receiver Russell Gage is on the field for most special-teams plays.

None of the ’18ers – not even Ridley, who caught eight passes for 105 yards and a touchdown -- came up bigger than Oliver against the Eagles.

If the cornerback hadn’t stuffed Ertz with the game on the line as Philly faced fourth-and-8 at the Falcons’ 16-yard line with time running out, the Falcons might well not have won 24-20.

“They’d tried two out-breaking routes that didn’t work,” said Oliver, a second-round draft choice from Colorado. “So, I thought they might run something in-breaking.”

The Eagles did. Ertz caught a short route in the seam, then turned toward a first down. 

Oliver came up fast from a deep position, stymied the tight end and with help from safety Keanu Neal, wrestled him to the ground about half a yard short of a first down.

The second-year Falcons are being asked and trusted to do quite a bit more than they were as greenhorns. And that goes beyond X’s and O’s.

“Yes, absolutely, and leadership as well. I think we kind of take the guys through a program, and they met with me every Thursday night, and we talked about different leadership aspects,” coach Dan Quinn said. “Like Russell Gage and how would he have his influence on the special-teams side. “When you’re a first-year player, it’s hard to lead anybody. 

“You’re just trying to get it right, and be accountable and earn some trust from your teammates ...”

The Falcons’ running numbers are paltry in part because they couldn’t run often in the opener at Minnesota because they were behind from the starter’s gun. Smith’s 63 yards on the ground lead the way on 10 carries. Starter Devonta Freeman has 41 yards and a 2.2 average on 19 carries. 

Ito also has three receptions for 22 yards. He feels more trusted Tevin Coleman departed in free agency to San Francisco.

“Yeah, definitely,” he said of his expanded playbook. “Mostly in the passing game, like splitting out at wide receiver.”

Smith said he gets what Quinn says about leadership.

Oliver said he tutors rookie cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller. Smith is tipping rookie running back Qadree Ollison and even veteran fullback Keith Smith, who joined the team shortly before the regular season. 

“Just helping them learn the offense, telling ‘Q’ how to really study film,” he said. “And other things, too, like off the field, like take care of your money.”

Oluokun had to study fast.

Deion Jones went down with a broken foot in last year’s season opener, and in short order Oluokun became the starter in the middle. When Jones returned for the final five games, the sixth-round draft pick from Yale, backed up Jones and grew his job description by also backing up strongside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.

That’s what he’s doing now.

He played 19 of 81 defensive snaps against the Eagles. Roughly, it broke down to him subbing six times in Jones’ stead, 12 for Campbell, and one in a three-linebacker set. 

Foye may play more Sunday at Indianapolis because the Colts are a heavy run team with multiple tight ends. That’s unlike the Eagles, who lost their No. 2 tight end last Sunday night when Dallas Goedert was lost in pregame warm-ups with a calf injury. The Colts have three tight ends, and they use all of them.

Oluokun also played 13 special-team clicks against the Eagles, matched by Gage, and surpassed by only a few. 

“It kind of started at the end of last season, when (coaches) were telling me, ‘You can’t make your first step here,’ “ he said of his increased role. “Now, I’m backing up Debo and ’Dre when they get tired.”

Although defensive tackle Deadrin Senat -- a third-round pick in ’18 – has been inactive for the Falcons’ first two games, he figures to factor. He played plenty as a rookie. 

Gono, who wasn’t drafted out of Division III Wesley (N.J.), did not. He didn’t play at all.

The Falcons considered him a developmental player who needed time to grown into big-boy football. He was in the mix in the preseason to be the backup swing tackle, but came down with a bum back late in the preseason. He was inactive for the first two games.

It’s conceivable that he could become the swing tackle.

In a way, the Falcons are less concerned about the way Gono and all second-year players play, and more interested in the way they raise their understudies.

“Foye earned that trust and Ito earned that trust, and Gage did and Calvin did. That’s really what your first year is about, telling your guys, ‘You can count on me and you can count on me when it’s hard.’ Now, how do they help bring the next group along?

“Are you doing what you said you were going to do? Are you going to model it? It’s a big factor.”

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