The Falcons have one of the youngest safeties groups in the league. Sharrod Neasman is technically the elder statesman at 26 years old. Out of all the positions on the defense, no group epitomizes the youth movement more than the safeties. They are constantly flying to the ball and keeping plays in front of them on the back end. Dan Quinn’s scheme makes a demanding position even more challenging. The free safety needs to handle all sorts of coverage responsibilities, while the strong safety will be asked to play more near the line of scrimmage and focus on the run.
With Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, the Falcons are solidified at the safety position for the first time since William Moore and Thomas DeCoud were playing at a high level in 2012. Both safeties complement each other well. They don’t force as many turnovers as the former Pro Bowl duo, but neither player commits anywhere near the same amount of mistakes. Both players are consistent tacklers and rarely get caught of position. Neasman and Damontae Kazee round out the safety group.
If season awards were being given out today, Keanu Neal would be my pick for Falcons’ MVP. The second-year safety has fully established himself as the enforcer in Quinn’s defense. It doesn’t take long for offenses to realize he needs to be accounted for on running plays. Neal will close down ball carriers in a quick, vicious manner. His ability to play the run is essential for an undersized defense that can get overpowered at the line of scrimmage.
On a team desperate for turnovers, Neal is starting to deliver the goods. His two forced fumbles against Carolina were outstanding individual efforts. It’s rare for a veteran running back like Jonathan Stewart to fumble once, let alone twice in a game. The willingness to fight for the strip and create multiple turnovers is a testament to Neal’s will. Forcing fumbles can be difficult for non-edge rushers, yet Neal has already produced seven in his career.
The soon-to-be Pro Bowler is starting to make plays in coverage with two pass breakups, including a touchdown-saving one against New England. Quinn was adamant about the importance of having a complete strong safety. That is why he “reached” for one of the NFL’s rising stars.
On a team lacking leaders, Allen has inserted himself into that role. His intelligence and savviness commands respect across the locker room. Young players look to him for guidance during film study and in-game situations. The former fifth round pick has adjusted well to playing free safety. For him to be such a reliable tackler is arguably the most surprising development. He was deemed as an undersized cornerback coming out of Purdue. While the physical attributes may not be there, Allen makes up for it to nullify plays and prevent potential big runs from going all the way.
This season has been slightly disappointing. There are instances where Allen is a step behind or late in coverage. He doesn’t possess great speed to provide the necessary range on certain plays. Taking poor angles is still a negative tendency to his game. For all his limitations, Allen makes up for it with his leadership.
Every defense needs smart players that know how to stay composed and keep their teammates together. Allen is one of those players. The jury is still out on his long-term status as the starting free safety. It does help that the coaching staff shows great trust in him.
Kazee stepped up for Allen against Buffalo. It was a mixed performance, as the fifth-round rookie had some promising moments. Preventing Jordan Matthews from scoring on third and goal was a memorable moment. His closing speed was evident on a huge stop. Scouting reports applauded him for playing physical and wanting to land big hits. That was on display from landing a well-executed hit on Mike Tolbert. By lowering his helmet, Kazee connected with the ball to force a fumble.
Similar to Allen, Kazee is a former cornerback. It will take time for him to find his feet at a new position. Kazee’s awareness was exploited on Tyrod Taylor’s touchdown pass to Matthews. He got in Desmond Trufant’s way on a crossing route, which allowed Matthews enough space to make the catch. Following that game, he has played sparingly. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff views him going into next season.
Neasman has mostly played on special teams. The coaching staff respects his determination and work ethic following a wild college career. If Neal needs rest, Neasman showed that he can hold his own in limited snaps.