After giving up a franchise-high 80 points the first two weeks of the season, the Atlanta Falcons held the New York Giants to just 14 points on Sunday.
One of the most improved players defensively for the Falcons has been defensive back Isaiah Oliver. When starting cornerback A.J. Terrell was ruled out with a concussion, it would have been logical to move Oliver into his spot.
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Because he's been so effective as a nickel cornerback, the Falcons elected to put T.J. Green at corner and not disrupt Oliver.
The move paid off.
Green struggled at corner, but Oliver shined. According to Pro Football Focus, Oliver was the second highest graded defensive player against the Giants behind linebacker Mykal Walker.
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith credits defensive coordinator Dean Pees and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke for finding Oliver's best role.
"It's really Dean and Hoke," said Smith. "They kind of had a vision for him, where they thought he could play. Really it was the same role that Logan Ryan had for Dean and Vrabes [Mike Vrabel] in Tennessee, and Zay’s taken that on and he’s smart, he’s instinctual. If you're going to play the nickel in this defense you’ve got to be a willing tackler too."
Edge rusher Dante Fowler also had a key sack and forced fumble to contribute to the win. This is a big season for Fowler. He took a pay cut in the offseason and is a free agent next year.
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Smith is pleased with Fowler's play rushing the passer, but knows he's capable of being a complete player.
"A lot of times when you've been tagged as a DPR right, you're just a pass rush specialist," said Smith. "A lot of these guys, can confuse yourself as an independent contractor. That's not what Dante is; it's not how he’s made up and I think he's starting to see the vision."
"There were some things that we didn't like with our rush lanes in Week 1. Sometimes you get rewarded just running around and you may fall into a sack, great, but you really screwed up the rush lanes and it all goes together.
"A lot of it is plays that he may not make but he's playing within the scheme and his effort’s been phenomenal."
"I think there's a play last week against Tampa, the game's over, we're all frustrated. He rushes and comes down and makes a stop, gets it to fourth down and we stop them on fourth down, and that says a lot about his character."
The Falcons take on the Washington Football Team on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 1 p.m. Washington is known for the strength of its front four, including defensive end Chase Young, but Fowler and Oliver are stepping up and garnering headlines as well.
Washington enters the game favored by 1.5 points, and if the Falcons are going to pull off the upset at home, they'll need continued good play from their rapidly improving defenders.