The Falcons have suffered a lot of injuries on defense in 2018. Anyone who has followed the team even casually can see the havoc it has wrought on the safeties, LB corps, and to a lesser extent the DL. But one area that has seen relatively little attrition is CB, where starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford were supposed to be rocks on a defense littered with rubble. While Trufant and Alford haven’t necessarily played up to expectations, they’ve at least been solid.
CB Brian Poole—who has been Atlanta’s nickel CB since 2016—has instead taken a huge step back. His coverage, which has long been a weak point, has been exposed due to the Falcons’ lack of pass rush. Poole’s tackling ability, which he was once known for, has also dropped off significantly. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Poole is having a down year—outside of the overall horrid play of the defense—but there’s no doubt that he’s been a liability through the first six games of the season.
The Falcons appear to have anticipated this, at least in part, with the drafting of CB Isaiah Oliver in the second round. While Oliver had a relatively quiet training camp and struggled a bit in the preseason, we all still expected him to find his way onto the field relatively soon. Fast forward to now and we’ve only seen Oliver play due to injuries, most notably against the Saints and Bengals. While he’s flashed some of the potential that got him drafted, he still looks pretty inconsistent with his technique.
With Poole struggling, the team may soon decide that it’s time to see what Oliver can do in a rotational role—particularly as a matchup piece against the bigger WRs of the NFL. He’s the best option that the Falcons have against receivers like Mike Evans, who both Trufant and Alford have historically struggled with. Oliver taking snaps on the outside would also allow Alford to move into the slot, where he has shown some real promise in the past and could possibly extend his career even further.
The flipside of that is that Oliver is still prone to rookie mistakes, and will probably need safety help the majority of the time to prevent a lot of big plays on the outside. With Atlanta paying a lot of money to Trufant and Alford, it might be time to let them handle the one-on-one matchups while someone like Oliver can be helped along by Damontae Kazee.
Even though Poole has continued to play poorly and the Falcons had a great opportunity to let Oliver test his mettle in Week 6 against Mike Evans and the Bucs, Oliver has mostly been relegated to the bench. As a second round pick on a struggling defense, it seems like the time is now—or perhaps after the bye—to throw the young player out there and see if he can show some growth. Long-term, the Falcons would certainly like to see Oliver develop into a reliable matchup piece or even a CB2-level starter or better.
While I think it’s unlikely that the team makes such a major change for the Giants game—New York is struggling on offense outside of RB Saquon Barkley, and Oliver doesn’t really present a good matchup with anyone in their WR corps—that change should be coming soon. The bye week could be a perfect time for the team to start splitting the snaps of Poole and Oliver, or at the very least playing them based on the matchups. It’ll be important to evaluate the young CB in 2018, otherwise the team will have even more question marks in the secondary in 2019 and beyond.
What are your thoughts on the play, or lack thereof, of Isaiah Oliver? Would you like to see Oliver get more snaps, or do you think Poole is still the best option in the nickel?