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Falcons “Swiss Army knife” Isaiah Oliver getting new looks in Atlanta’s defense

The oft-criticized cornerback has settled into a hybrid role effectively.

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s fair to say Isaiah Oliver is not a universally beloved player. The former second round pick was essentially mothballed in his rookie year before becoming a starter in 2019, where he was frequently targeted and sometimes crisped in a rough year for the entire secondary. While Oliver had brilliant moments in the early going this year, he once again had a missed interception here or moment where he was completely outpaced there that led to him enjoying the wrong end of the highlight reel far too often in the first five weeks of the season.

With Raheem Morris assuming head coaching duties and Jeff Ulbrich becoming the full-time defensive coordinator, paired with the return of Kendall Sheffield, he’s now played over 75% of the defensive snaps just one in the past six weeks. He’s split time with Kendall Sheffield and Darqueze Dennard, playing inside and taking snaps as in what Ulbrich termed a “safety-like” role where he’s been asked to blitz and play closer to the line of scrimmage. His coverage miscues have been noticeably diminished, he’s delivered a couple of pressures and a sack as a pass rusher, and his always-solid tackling is playing well against the run. The net takeaway here is that Oliver appears to be more comfortable in his new, slightly reduced role, which has been part of the defensive improvement in recent weeks.

Notably, Ulbrich is not ruling out Oliver getting more time at safety going forward.

This is not something to put a ton of stock into at the moment—the Falcons are not benching either Ricardo Allen or Keanu Neal, and Oliver can get a few snaps per game as a nominal third safety without making major waves—but it is something to monitor because the Falcons figure to go into the spring without a whole lot in the cupboard at safety. If Oliver can continue to carve out a role as a versatile defender who can wear several hats, he might be able to pick up more of a role at safety under a new staff, though that’s heavily dependent on who is coming in. It’s not clear at all that a new staff will feel comfortable making Oliver a full-time outside starter again after some of the adventures of the last couple years, but that may not prevent him from having a significant role.

It doesn’t particularly matter to me what you want to call Oliver’s position or where he actually plays, so long as it maximizes his strengths. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the team deploys him in the weeks to come and what it means for his role in 2021.