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An ode to Keanu Neal and the season that should have been

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Pour one out for the heart of the defense.

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Keanu Neal hits you like you owe him money. He sees you, he zeroes in, and you’re on your back before you can figure out why or what day it is. The prodigious punishment he inflicts upon opposing players is a beautiful thing to behold, and unfortunately it’s going to be at least a year before we’re privileged enough to bear witness to it again.

Neal is the sledgehammer of the defense, permanent resident in Willie Snead’s nightmares, and unquestionably one of the best additions to the Falcons in a long, long time. His twice-buckling knee on Thursday night was a tragic reminder that demi-gods are still part human, and the Falcons are now forced into the daunting position of replacing the irreplaceable. To say things have changed is an understatement, but such is the way of football and the Atlanta Falcons will endure the next fifteen games without their star strong safety.

Endure, and hope to overcome.

Atlanta’s Pro Bowl defender will be on the shelf for some time, presumably going into surgery for his torn ACL this week. It will be a long, at times frustrating recovery, so we of course wish him the absolute best as he treads the path many have before him and none of whom have ever wished for. It’s a brutal game at times.

Entering just his third year in the NFL, Keanu Neal possesses the poise and swagger of a well-worn veteran. “Taking the next step” this season doesn’t seemingly apply to a young player who has already made an indelible mark on Atlanta’s defensive rebuild, but he appeared positioned to enter 2018 and continue to burnish his reputation as one of the best strong safeties in the league.

And then his knee buckled. And then it buckled again.

Dan Quinn was cautiously optimistic after the Eagles game, conveying that Neal’s injury didn’t appear very serious. Keanu would have an MRI on Friday morning just to medically confirm the sigh of relief that the team expected, and he’d be good to go for Week 2.

Instead they got the unexpected. And so did we.

So the Falcons secondary has a massive question mark moving forward, and no matter how they choose to address it there’s simply no substitute for Keanu Neal. They’ll make due as best they can, and we’ll hope whoever is tabbed to fill those massive shoes can turn off the outside noise and simply play.

Because he’s going to be compared to Keanu Neal, the Falcons’ defensive enforcer and the man who puts wide receivers on notice. The man who makes you regret dialing up a crossing route; the man who finally put the oomph back in Atlanta.

So raise a glass to Keanu Neal tonight. We’ll see you on the sidelines sooner than later, and we can’t wait to see you back on the field next season.