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Keanu Neal responds to hit on Jordan Reed, Duke Riley’s progression, and his health

Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

After missing 15 games in 2018, Atlanta’s hard-hitting safety is back. Keanu Neal is healthy and excited to get back to leveling people. I really wish Jimmy Graham was still in the NFC South so we could see so much more of this.

Fans desperately missed Neal’s speed and tone-setting tackling in 2018. He should be a big part of what is hopefully a transformed defense. Asked about the defense, he refused to tip too much of what to expect. “We’re continuing to work. Just building on what we started and continuing to go.”

More than anything, Neal has gotten through training camp and preseason without any setbacks. “I’m excited to get it going. Making it through the preseason healthy, I’m grateful. I’ve got my feet wet. Now it’s on to the big deal.”

The biggest change on the defense, of course, is Dan Quinn replacing Marquand Manuel. Manuel had a rising defense in 2017 but had no idea what to do after injuries struck in 2018. Quinn, of course, helped coach up one of the most dominating defenses in the league for years with the Seattle Seahawks. What changes is he bringing?

“[Dan Quinn] is going to let the players play. That’s one thing that I’ll say.... He’s going to put us in positions to make plays.” Manuel coached a defense drastically lacking big plays. The Falcons jettisoned Mike Nolan’s exotic, complex defensive scheme that had defensive linemen covering wide receivers for Quinn’s more straight-forward, simple defense. He’s preached adding athleticism above all else, and letting these stronger, faster players make a play. We likely will not see Grady Jarrett dropping into coverage very often.

While we have talked up Duke Riley’s preseason debut performance, Neal was unsurprised about Riley’s turnaround and impressive goal line stuff. “It was awesome. [Duke Riley] showed his grit. Showed want-to, his work. Making a play like that is big. He’s the player to do that.... I definitely see [his growth situationally]. We’ve been making more of an emphasis on that. Obviously, we have throughout the years. This last week has been specifically situational ball. Focusing on that stuff. For him to correlate that to the game is big.”

Neal has returned to his hard-hitting ways early in preseason, highlighted by this hit on Washington tight end Jordan Reed.

“People were coming to me about [the Jordan Reed hit], saying things. For me, I never have ill-intent playing the game. Obviously, I’m a physical player. I’m an enforcer. That’s my game. But to try and hit someone helmet-to-helmet that’s not me. That’s not my game.”