For all the expectations surrounding Dan Quinn’s defense, there weren’t many personnel changes. Talent was added across the defensive line. The linebacker group remained the same, while Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal returned from season-ending injuries to reform one of the better safety tandems in the league. The one major personnel change came at the cornerback position. Robert Alford was unsurprisingly released following a dreadful 2018. As the front office opted not to re-sign Brian Poole, all indications were directed towards their promising young corner. Isaiah Oliver was going to be the starter alongside Desmond Trufant.
The former first-team All-Pac-12 corner entered the season with plenty of buzz. His athletic traits and measurables mesh well with Dan Quinn’s preferences. With his long arms and ability to cover acres of space, Oliver is the type of corner that Quinn wants in his defense. What the coaching staff would like to see improvement on is his overall technique. Oliver can struggle to change direction in man coverage. His tendency of not playing with much aggressiveness can become problematic, particularly in run support. Both concerns were visible in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota.
Breaking down Oliver’s game
Oliver had the task of covering Adam Thielen, who has established himself as one of the craftiest wide receivers in the league. The responsibility of matching up with him for nearly a full game isn’t ideal for most cornerbacks, let alone one who doesn’t have much NFL experience. Oliver was fortunate Kirk Cousins only attempted ten passes. Based on a few plays, it was clear Oliver couldn’t hang with him. This realization isn’t surprising given what Thielen has accomplished. What left many frustrated was the young cornerback’s lack of tenacity.
On Cousins’ lone touchdown pass, Oliver allowed Thielen to get leverage on him far too easily. One of Oliver’s biggest attributes is his size. Allowing an undersized receiver beat you with his physicality raises immediate questions. It wasn’t the first time he allowed Thielen to get the better of him. Dalvin Cook’s first touchdown run could have been prevented if Oliver had better instincts. Instead of reacting, Oliver opted to try to close down the outside. That led to him running into Thielen, which meant he couldn’t make the necessary open-field tackle.
Oliver will need to elevate his game quickly. In a game where he wasn’t tested often due to game flow, Oliver still managed to make too many mistakes. The Falcons’ ultra-talented offense won’t commit three turnovers. They will score plenty of points, which means the opposing team will attempt 30 to 40 passes a game.
Oliver must show he is up for the challenge starting against Philadelphia. There aren’t many play callers more unpredictable than Doug Pederson. Putting defenders in precarious positions is what his offensive system embodies. Oliver must be prepared for a wide variety of RPOs, unorthodox play designs, and matchups.
This will be a big test to see where Oliver stands as a prospect. A potential matchup against Alshon Jeffrey would be most fitting for him. Jeffrey is the type of receiver that Oliver can get physical with at the line of scrimmage. It’s a better matchup stylistically than covering the likes of DeSean Jackson or Nelson Agholor. Minnesota ran mostly 12 (two wide receivers, two tight ends) or 21 (two running backs, two wide receivers) personnel packages last Sunday. That left Oliver mostly on Thielen, while Desmond Trufant covered Stefon Diggs.
Quinn may decide to have Oliver shadow Jeffrey, as Trufant rotates between the other two explosive wide receivers. Regardless of the matchups and schematic setups, Oliver is going to be in the spotlight this week. He needs to make an impact for Quinn’s defense to get back on track.