The team’s 2017 and 2018 defensive coordinator was let go shortly after the season concluded. The former defensive coordinator started in Atlanta as the secondary coach. Dan Quinn brought him along for his first season back in 2015. When Neasman joined the Falcons in 2016, he immediately started working closely with Manuel. He credits the former safety for helping him acclimate to the NFL.
“Marquand offered a lot to us,” Neasman said. “When you look at our secondary during the time he was there, we were all young at one point. All of the defensive backs were either young or had no NFL experience. With his experience as someone who played in the league for eight years, it greatly helped us as a group. He consistently opened his mind to us and allowed us to pick his brain. We were able to pick up on some of the things he did as a player. You need to pick up the game quickly at the NFL level as a young player.”
“He helped us understand certain schemes both offensively and defensively. He would show us what offensive coordinators like. Play designs, route concepts, you name it. He took as much time as possible to help us learn about anything we wanted. He joked about not sleeping much anyway, so we could always go to him at any time. If we were watching film late at night and something stuck out, we could shoot him a text and he’d text you right back.”
“He was really tough on everybody. It was important for him to stay on us, especially during the difficult times. That’s how he worked. I really think Marquand is a big part of how the defensive backs have developed. He was always coming into the DB (defensive backs) room to work with us. I consider him a mentor and think he influenced every DB on the roster with his work ethic.”
Manuel wasn’t the only influential figure to be let go. Robert Alford was one of several veterans to be released. The ultra-aggressive cornerback wasn’t always popular amongst fans, but remained highly respected in the locker room. Neasman mentioned him as another person who greatly helped him. The same can be said about Desmond Trufant, who is one of the most experienced players in the locker room.
“Our whole DB room is a tight-knit group,” Neasman said. “Alford was there for years. At one point, he was the longest defensive player to be on the Falcons with Trufant. When I had first gotten there, they were there for the longest in the secondary. With them knowing the defense, they were able to help me and other young players be more cognizant on route combinations and play designs. They really helped us be more observant within our scheme.”
“They would show us routes that were difficult to stop because it would be in the dead zone of our defensive scheme. It helped us get a heads up on those kind of routes. We had to understand that the quarterback would look that way immediately and try to get easy yardage. Both guys taught everyone how to handle certain situations within the scheme. It didn’t matter if you were a nickel corner, free safety, or strong safety. You learned from them.”
When it comes to learning, Ricardo Allen is considered as one of the main resources for information. The savvy free safety takes full responsibility in being the defense’s main communicator and organizer. Not many players command more respect in the locker room than him. Neasman spoke highly of Allen during our interview in 2017. Similar to most players, he appreciates everything Allen does on and off the field.
“Rico (Ricardo) is always helping everyone,” Neasman stated. “For him to play safety is even better for a player like me. He can provide the exact knowledge I need to improve as a player. He realizes that different people learn in different ways. The way coaches teach is one thing. The way you go home and study could be a completely different thing. Rico always reminds players of that. He would show you how he studies film and processes it.”
“How ever it helps you retain information and improve as a player, you have to do it that way. That was really helpful in trying to find ways to understand film. He always helped getting the defense set up and recognizing offensive formations. Whenever he recognized something, he shared it and got everyone in front of him or next to him better aligned. It can be something the quarterback does during the pre-snap or if a player is motioning. Rico is on top of it. He’s been a huge influence on me.”
While it’s no secret the Falcons’ defense never recovered after losing Keanu Neal and Deion Jones to serious injuries, Allen’s absence can’t be ignored. The defense looked extremely disorganized for the majority of the season without him. Losing a leader like him was hugely detrimental to the defense. Everyone in the organization was affected by the loss of Allen. After the injury occurred, Neasman made sure to talk to him.
“When I tore my ACL, it was actually non-contact,” Neasman said. “To see Rico go down for the season from a non-contact injury made me immediately want to reach out to him. I got to talk to him for a bit. When you suffer a non-contact serious injury, it’s more of a mental block you have to get over. It’s actually more mental than physical. You got a great work ethic. You’ll work hard and go through rehab. That said, it’s always in the back of your mind that you got injured off nothing. It makes you a bit more hesitant with different movements. Once you get in your mind that you don’t have to be hesitant, you’ll start to make the progress you need.”
“Coming off my serious injury, I was a bit timid exploding off the leg that I got reconstructive surgery on. You have to get over that roadblock. You have to subconsciously do it. That’s a big thing for anybody who’s suffered a serious injury, especially if it was non-contact. I thought talking to Rico was a good opportunity for me to give him some advice that he could use for his recovery. I don’t think he ever suffered a major injury in his career at that point. This was my moment to give back to him and share with him about what I went through that would help him in his situation.”
There is always a debate on what position is most difficult outside of quarterback. The positions usually mentioned are cornerback, safety, and running back. Although each position has certain demands, there is no position currently dealing with more restrictions than safety. The NFL has made it difficult for them to handle certain situations with their strict hitting rules. Given how much responsibility a safety already has to begin with, it’s become even harder to play the position without being penalized at some point. Neasman wholeheartedly agrees about the difficulty of playing safety.
“Everyone knows how hard the quarterback position is,” Neasman said. “Other than that, I really think the safety position is most challenging. If you are a moving safety or hybrid safety or even a box safety, you have to do it all. You have to know what the linebackers and corners know. You have to know what everyone is doing, including the d-line because that could affect the gap alignments. The safety position is responsible for so many things. It’s the toughest position to play defensively hands down.”
“With the rule changes, you have to be a lot more cognoscente of how you play. How you end up hitting a player is sometimes unavoidable. However, the league doesn’t care about that. They only care about where the contact occurs. The moment you initiated the strike or where you were in the range of hitting that player, none of that matters to them. When you go into making a tackle, you have to try to stay in the strike zone or stay below the head-neck area the entire time. You just can’t hit them in the upper area.”
“These rule changes definitely changed the game. It makes you approach tackling a little more cautiously, especially when you get burned on it a few times. Not only does it hurt the team, but it’s also hurting your pockets significantly. These fines are heavy. I think everyone has changed how they approach tackling over the past few years.”
The other significant change across the league in recent years has been the offensive evolution. Offensive masterminds such as Sean McVay, Andy Reid, Sean Payton, and Kyle Shanahan have all made their mark on the league. They are considered as the most innovative play callers in the NFL. With teams searching for the next offensive genius, it makes you wonder how defenses are going to prepare for these creative coaches. As someone who plays such a demanding position, Neasman gets a better on-field perspective of what is transpiring than most players. He shared his thoughts on how the league is changing.
“The league is becoming a copycat league, at least offensively,” Neasman said with a chuckle. “Everyone is trying to get on what works. It’s a constant revolving door. Once offenses start noticing schematic weaknesses in certain coverages, they will start targeting it. Some defenses will identify it and make adjustments. Some defensive schemes will stick with what they do. They will get the players that fit their scheme to try to counter it.”
“How they operate definitely varies depending on the concepts within the scheme. You’ll see a team that plays primarily two high safeties. Then, you’ll see them be more open to adjustments depending on the opponent’s game plan. With the way offensive coordinators are operating in an offensive-based league, it makes stopping them difficult. They got a variety of play action, run designs, screen setups, and so much more. What they can do makes it real tough for defenses.”
“When we prepare for a team like the Saints, we have to prepare for everything. They have hit us with a bunch of flea flickers, rub route concepts, and screens in the past. They have a pretty lengthy offensive playbook. From my time in New Orleans, I saw how Sean (Payton) specifically evaluates players. He knows how to utilize offensive players and pinpoint opposing defensive players’ tendencies. It’s not difficult for him to figure out how to attack someone. He does it from not only watching film, but also using his years of experience knowing what a player’s mentality is. That’s how he begins to draw up plays for that opponent. Sean is definitely one of the best. Watching him work was very interesting.”
After coming off his finest season, Neasman is prepared to do what he can to contribute in 2019. He will need to continue proving himself amongst a talented group of safeties. Staying motivated has never been a problem for him. Considering all the obstacles he’s faced over the course of his career, the former undrafted free agent maintains an upbeat approach towards his future. It’s all about doing what he loves doing at a high level and giving belief to those who are or have been doubted.
“I’m not looking at any particular stats that I want to hit,” Neasman stated. “I just want to go out there every game and play the best to my ability. I want my talent to be known and have fun doing what I do. That’s what it comes down to. Playing the game I love at a high level is most important. Football has given me so much. That’s what makes me want to put it all out on the line. Of course, I want to inspire others to do the same. I always try to use my story to inspire others to pursue their dreams. Nothing is impossible. You can go out there and do what you want with the right mindset. It can be achieved.”