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Whitt's presence could signal breakout for Isaiah Oliver

The Falcons may need an infusion of talent at their cornerback spots, but with some coaching there are internal options.

NFL mock draft season has brought the Atlanta Falcons plugs for the multiple holes on their defense. Atlanta finished 2019 with a 7-9 record in which the defensive unit ranked 20th in total defense, 22nd in passing defense and 15th in rushing defense.

It was middle of the road to say the least. 

The Falcons’ push to the middle of the pack happened over the last eight weeks of the 2019 season. After the bye week in week eight head coach Dan Quinn relinquished the defensive play calling duties to now-defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and the Falcons dropped their points per game allowed total from 31.25 to 18.62 over the final eight games of the season. Over that stretch, the Falcons were 6-2. 

Potential draft direction

One position that could be addressed in the upcoming NFL Draft is cornerback. The franchise top option at the position, Desmond Trufant, was recently waived.

A recent mock draft from CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson suggests the Falcons could look to improve their pass defense from the back end. Wilson mocked University of Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson to the Falcons with the 16th overall selection in the draft, as does fellow writer at CBS Chris Trapasso.

The Falcons have a new secondary coach and pass game coordinator as Joe Whitt Jr. replaced Morris. Morris took over the reigns of defensive coordinator.

The Falcons have been mocked to multiple combinations of edge rushers and interior defensive linemen. With the departure of Vic Beasley, one of those two positions make the most sense for a team looking to find ways to improve their pass defense.

“You don’t really want to limit yourself,” Whitt said. “Good football players are good football players. Everybody has different skill sets. Some people have length and some people have speed. I think intelligence is a skill as well that is undervalued in this league. There are so many skill sets out there in the league. We’re just looking to bring the best football players to the Atlanta Falcons and that’s all that matters. The fit, Thomas and DQ will make sure that the fit is right.”

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The Falcons have young talent that Whitt Jr. is excited about in third-year corner Isaiah Oliver and second-year player Kendal Sheffield.

“I’m excited to work with this group of young men,” Whitt said. “They have some ability that gives us the chance to play a number of different schemes.”

During the Falcons’ surge at the end of the 2019 season, Oliver showed signs of becoming the player the Falcons thought they were getting when they selected him out of Colorado in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Oliver had 11 passes defensed and 50 tackles in 2019. Of the passes Oliver successfully defensed, seven of them came after week eight.

Since he took over the job in Atlanta, Whitt said he has watched Oliver on tape and saw the technical improvements he made at the end of the season last season to put himself in position to make breakup more passes.

“The last eight games he did a really good job of connecting his feet and his hands together, he stayed more square and that gave him the ability once they got up the field to connect at the top of routes,” Whitt said. “Early in the year, he was doing some things that didn’t connect his feet and his hands. That cleaned up throughout the year. Ra (Morris) and those guys did a very nice job with that.”

The next step for Oliver becoming a mainstay in the Falcons’ lineup is taking the ball away from the offense. The Falcons recorded 12 interceptions in 2019, four of which came from Trufant.

Whitt feels he can bring the necessary skills and mindset that will allow the Falcons’ defensive backs to get their hands on the football more often.

“After we get that scheme understanding down, we’re going to make sure we can pull the ball off of people,” said Whitt. “That’s one thing in Green Bay we did better than anyone in the league over the years that I was the secondary coach in Green Bay. We intercepted more balls than anybody else in the league. Hopefully, that’s what we can bring down here. Hopefully, Isaiah will be a part of pulling the ball off people because he’s doing a better job of connecting at the line of scrimmage and up the field. Now, it’s about pulling the ball.”