FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It appears that it takes Keanu Neal, the Falcons’ first-round pick in April and new strong safety, a moment or two to rub off on people.
It took anywhere from 12 hours to a few days post draft for fans to calm down after Atlanta made the shocking move of drafting a safety instead of a much-need linebacker or pass-rush specialist. But, slowly the idea of what Neal could bring to the team stirred a sense of acceptance.
It was all theoretical, however. Until Neal did something on the field, no one would know how well the Falcons did in the first round of the draft. Enter training camp…
After two days of camp, outside of an interception that Neal grabbed after Levine Toilolo bobbled a passing attempt, nothing truly stood out about his play.
That haven’t-seen-much-yet feeling for Neal screeched abruptly to a halt Sunday when he (to borrow a phrase from Nuke LaLoosh from the veritable classic “Bull Durham”) announced his presence with authority. And now it’s apparent … Neal will absolutely be the punisher this Atlanta defense sorely (pun intended) needed.
Why’d it take a few days of camp for Neal to show his strengths? Well, the first two days of camp were played under OTAs rules – with just shorts, jerseys and helmets.
“We thought that [Neal’s physical play] would show up once we got in pads,” head coach Dan Quinn said after Sunday’s camp session. “I think that’s certainly his game and he’s got such respect from other members of his team because of his work ethic.”
During a red-zone drill, Neal popped Jacob Tamme at the end of a play and the veteran tight end took exception with a shove and some intense words – the first disagreement (tough to call it a fight because it didn’t last long) of camp.
After a few moments the fracas ended, but the message was received.
“He [Tamme] just really emphasized protecting the team,” said Neal. “That’s the point he was trying to get across. That’s the biggest thing and it’s true. He held me accountable, so he put me in check. I got out of hand hitting him like that. We are a physical team, but like I said earlier, we’ve got to protect the team. He emphasized that.”
Quinn set expectations well before Saturday’s first padded practice: The health of the team comes first. There’s no tackling to the ground, the quarterback doesn’t get touched and physicality shouldn’t be dialed up to 100 percent. Quinn told his guys: ‘Don’t lose your mind.’
Neal heard Tamme’s message, but it’s hard to control basic instincts that have been instilled into a football player for years. The first-year safety from Florida came to the Falcons an enforcer inside the box. He hits ball-carriers and receivers with little regard to health. That way they’ll think twice about coming through Neal’s territory again.
That’s what the Falcons want. That’s the message opposing offenses need to know after so many times the middle of Atlanta’s defense was where teams went to churn yardage.
When Neal broke up a pass to Toilolo later in practice Sunday with a vicious hit, he showed the coaching staff (and the assembled fans at the open practice) just how he’s going to patrol the middle in 2016.
“Yeah (laughing), I wasn’t trying to kill him,” said Neal. “It just happened really. … See ball, get ball. Line up at a half and I just went for it.”
Neal plastered Eric Weems a few plays later after the wide receiver hauled in a pass. The move was another “mistake” from the rookie who shouldn’t be enforcing his methods on teammates, but it was a welcomed “mistake” to most onlookers at camp.
There’s a football saying, especially now that camp rosters have grown to 90 players in recent years. Not only are players trying out for the team they’re in camp with, but for guys who get cut later, they’ve put tons of film out there for the other 31 teams to look at. A player isn’t just trying out for one team, but every team.
Neal will definitely be patrolling the middle for the Falcons this season, his roster spot has already been solidified. But the film he’s supplying in camp will still be of vital importance to the rest of NFL.
The message: Attempting to move the football through the middle of Atlanta’s defense just got more difficult, and now comes with a price to pay for ball carriers.