When the San Francisco 49ers signed CB Isaiah Oliver to a two-year, $6.75 million deal this past offseason, they did so with the intent of making him their starting nickel corner. But the 49ers’ first preseason game told a different story.
Oliver played in the game, which was not a good sign for a presumptive starter, and after a rough outing in the contest, 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan said the cornerback was not, in fact, a presumptive starter and the team would be looking at different combinations at the position. With all that, Oliver never was clear on his work and his approach and it paid off this past Sunday.
“Total class, total class guy, handled it the right way,” said 49ers’ defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. “That was the first thing I said after the game, that it could have gone differently. But he didn’t complain, just went out each and every day, did his job, and when the opportunity came, he stepped up and made plays so very proud of his performance.”
Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir started Week One against Pittsburgh and Week Two against the Rams at nickel, with Oliver coming in for certain matchups. In the first half against the Rams, CB Ambry Thomas hurt his knee and Lenoir had to move back to outside corner, putting Oliver at nickel for the rest of the game. He was a literal game-changer.
“I thought he was a stud today,” said 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s win over the Rams. “…[H]e made some huge plays…Especially with some of our DBs getting banged up throughout the game, those guys had to step it up, because they were kind of all over the place, and he did a great job at that.”
The 49ers’ defense got off to a somewhat slow start against the Rams, and it was Oliver who helped turn things around in the second half.
“I felt like we played a lot better in that second half going into that game,” Oliver said. “So just for me personally, it felt a lot better, felt more comfortable. So it was good to get that win.”
About halfway through the third quarter, Oliver intercepted a Matthew Stafford pass that went off the hands of Rams’ running back Kyren Williams and into the waiting arms of Oliver. He later had a huge tackle on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter and the Rams turned it over on downs.
Those two plays were two highlights, but Oliver established himself throughout the game.
“The plays that he made out there, particularly that third down tackle, I think was phenomenal,” Wilks said. “Open-field tackle and that was huge at that point in time of the game. He came up with an interception, you can see just his length and the way he grabbed the ball out of the air. And then the fourth down play where he shot the gap. I couldn’t be more proud of him and how he’s stayed the course. You know, we moved some things around, he didn’t waver, he didn’t blink, kept working hard and it paid off for him.”
49ers’ CB Charvarius Ward also spoke about Oliver’s athletic ability and his work ethic.
“Isaiah has always approached the game like a pro,” said Ward. “He always comes in each and every day just trying to learn the defense, figure out how we play. I always knew he had talent, he’s got superb length, great size for a nickel, but he was just learning new techniques…so that’s probably why it took a little while for him to really excel like he did Sunday. Hopefully he can continue to build that momentum…and continue to make big plays that we need to be made at the nickelback spot.”
After the early struggles, stepping up on the road against a divisional opponent did a lot for Oliver’s confidence level.
“Just understanding the scheme and understanding the style of play, I think, was the biggest thing for me,” Oliver said. “I felt I got a little bit better after that.”
It’s not easy to come in as “the guy” at a position, not live up, keep working and then get there. But a solid performance helps everything.
“Confidence is always a big part of an athlete’s game,” Ward said. “You have to be confident in yourself and believe in yourself to make plays. I think Isaiah has always had confidence, but now that he sees that everybody truly believes in him, that’s going to help him out a lot more. We’re behind him, we know what he’s capable of, we know he’s got great talent…I believe in Isaiah. I know the defense does as well, that’s why we signed him.”
As the 49ers move into Week 3 and Thursday Night Football, that poise will be key for Oliver to take Sunday’s performance into prime time against Daniel Jones and the New York Giants.
“I feel the biggest thing is just [Jones] can run,” Oliver said. “He’s got the ability to move outside of the pocket, get out, scramble, zone reads, all types of things. He’s a real athletic guy. So that’s kind of the biggest thing. We just kind of got to hone in and focus on that on the rush lanes and be able to rally to him when he does break the pocket.”
Oliver credits his defensive coordinator for helping him get through the last several weeks “really with the mental side, I feel like the biggest thing. I feel like he’s just such a knowledgeable guy. And then obviously within the scheme and everything like that, he just helped me transition and get adjusted.”
The 49ers just may have their nickelback.