Atlanta Falcons: Replacing Injured Safety Keanu Neal

Atlanta Falcons Keanu Neal (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Atlanta Falcons Keanu Neal (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Atlanta Falcons suffered their first serious injury Thursday. It was a devastating injury that ended the season of starting strong safety of Keanu Neal. How will the Falcons replace him?

During the second quarter of the Atlanta Falcons season opener, strong safety Keanu Neal planted his foot in the ground to change directions, while guarding Eagles’ tight end Zach Ertz. Neal went down without any contact with Ertz, causing anxiety for Falcons’ fans on social media and message boards.

Keanu returned to the game and provided a sigh of relief for the fans. Many thought he may have just been suffering from cramps. However early in the 3rd quarter, Neal went down in a heap again clutching his knee. He didn’t return to the game.

Shortly thereafter it was reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Keanu Neal has a torn ACL. Neal will miss the remainder of the season. The Atlanta Falcons have placed Keanu on injured reserve, officially ending his season.

The blow is a tough one for Atlanta Falcons. Losing Neal removes the Falcons’ hardest hitter. Keanu has forced an astounding eight fumbles, in his two seasons here in Atlanta. This includes leading the NFL in forced fumbles with five as a rookie in 2016.

Keanu Neal is a rare safety with the power and strength to play in the box and be a force in the running game, yet he also has the speed to cover opposing running backs and tight ends. In addition to the eight forced fumbles, Neal also has 218 tackles and one interception in his short NFL career.

Pro Football Focus graded Keanu Neal as the 19th best safety in the NFL in 2017, with a grade of 78.1 (out of a possible 99.9). Neal was graded as the seventh best safety in the NFL at defending the run, with a grade of 84.9. His run defense will be what’s missed the most by the Atlanta Falcons.

Damontae Kazee, a 5’11 190 pound second year safety, is expected to step into the starting strong safety spot vacated by Neal. Kazee is a free safety, who was originally a cornerback in college.

Kazee was a standout during the preseason. PFF graded Kazee as the NFL’s 3rd best safety for the preseason, with a grade of 83.8. He allowed a microscopic quarterback rating of 37.5 when opponents threw at him, the second best rating in the NFL.

The fact that Damontae Kazee is a free safety by trade, means that the Atlanta Falcons should be even better in coverage when replacing Neal with Kazee. It allows the Atlanta Falcons to alternate who they leave in the box, between Kazee and Free Safety Ricardo Allen.

One area that the Atlanta Falcons might suffer in, is run defense and tackling. Kazee is a willing tackler, and packs a force when hitting, he’s just not as big and strong as Keanu Neal, the NFL’s seventh best safety against the run.  Kazee is also unlikely to match Keanu’s ability to force fumbles.

Will the lack of a true strong safety cause the Atlanta Falcons to put a different safety on the field in obvious running situations? If so who would that be? Thankfully the Atlanta Falcons traded for former New England Patriots strong safety Jordan Richards.

Jordan Richards measures out at 5’11, 210 pounds, and played college football at Stanford University. He was drafted 64th overall (2nd round) by the New England Patriots, in the 2015 draft.

The Atlanta Falcons acquired Jordan Richards from New England on August 31, for a conditional seventh round draft pick. Will McFadden of wrote about the trade in this article.

Jordan, who also has the ability to play linebacker, is known as an excellent special teams player. He often played a hybrid safety, linebacker role in NE, similar to the role Kemal Ishmael has played here in Atlanta.

Kemal Ishmael is a candidate to play the box strong safety on running downs if needed. As is 6’1 215 pound, rookie linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, a former converted safety from Yale University. He was drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons.

The Atlanta Falcons also signed veteran safety Keith Tandy. Tandy is 5’10 and weights 205 pounds. He honed his craft at the University of West Virginia, and was drafted by Tampa Bay in round six of the NFL draft.

Keith Tandy had played his entire career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers up until now. He has eight interceptions, and 14 passes defended  entering his seventh season. He has started 15 games this far in his career, playing both free and strong safety.

New Atlanta Falcons safety Keith Tandy played his best seasons in 2013 and 2016, starting five games in each season. In 2013 Tandy had three interceptions and three passes defended. He forced one fumble, recovered one fumble, and recorded 40 tackles.

The year 2016, really stood out as the best season for Keith Tandy. He intercepted four passes, and successfully defended an astounding nine more passes. Tandy also contributed 52 tackles and recovered a fumble his standout season.

The Atlanta Falcons will certainly miss Keanu Neal, but Coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitrov seem to have done a sufficient job shoring up the depth.

The main things to watch for from here on out, will be if Ricardo Allen or Damontae Kazee ends up playing more strong safety lining up in the box, and how they fare. Observing to see if a bigger box safety like Richards, Tandy, Ishmael or Oluokun will be needed on running downs, will also be riveting.

Watching to see just how much better the Falcons coverage unit is with the ball-hawking Damontae Kazee in the starting lineup with certainly be riveting this season as well.

Related Story. Atlanta Falcons Week One Recap. light

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