The Atlanta Falcons drafted rookie strong safety Keanu Neal for a few reasons. First, he's got a Dan Quinn connection. (Quinn actually participated in his recruitment to the University of Florida back when he was on their coaching staff.) Second, the team had a need, and Neal had the skill set necessary to immediately fill that need. Third, and this probably matters most, he's a blue collar, hard hitting football player.
Neal is not a dirty player. He hits hard, because that's part of his game. He went unflagged after an illegal hit during the Falcons loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In the week that followed, he drew a $24,309 fine from the league.
To be clear, Neal's hit on Jordan Matthews warranted a fine. He lined Matthews up and lowered his head. The crown of his helmet hit Matthews right in the face. Matthews walked away with dented helmet and needed a new face mask. He also had a bloody lip. Neal had to pay a big fine, and he deserved it, but in his defense, Matthews was in the process of catching the ball less than a second before Neal hit him. And you see Neal trying to bring his left shoulder around, as if he intended to avoid the helmet to helmet contact with Matthews. Even so, his helmet hit Matthews' face mask. The tape doesn't lie.
Fast forward to Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals. Neal was flagged for knocking future Hall of Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald on his butt. The officials got it wrong. Why? Because the crown of Neal's helmet never touched Fitzgerald. In fact, if you watch the video, it looks like Fitzgerald goes looking for the helmet to helmet and Neal somehow avoids it. Don't believe me? Watch this:
How is that a defenseless receiver? That was a perfect hit pic.twitter.com/1f0dtzohmu— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) November 27, 2016
I've watched this clip probably 50 times. At no point does the crown of Neal's helmet touch Fitzgerald. The circumstances also differ from those surrounding the Jordan Matthews hit. Fitzgerald had completed the catch and was in the process of making a football move. Fitzgerald lowered his helmet and sought out the contact. Jalen Collins also converged on Neal and Fitzgerald simultaneously.
So given the clear video exonerating Neal, you'd think a fine would be a non-possibility. But alas, not everyone agrees. In fact, the AJC's Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter is essentially endorsing a fine.
Neal, a physical player who was drafted to add some toughness to the Falcons' defense, tried to defend the hit, but he needs to get his helmet out of the way ... Falcons coach Dan Quinn wrongly defended this hit ... Quinn and his staff know how to fix this.
Seriously? I don't know Ledbetter personally, and I'm frankly not sure whether he had an opportunity to review the video. He references a photo included in his article. That photo doesn't show Neal's helmet touching Fitzgerald either. Ultimately the league will review this and if they don't fine Neal, that will confirm what we already know: Neal's hit was legit.