There was quite a bit that went wrong in the previous two seasons for the Falcons. Lots of inconsistencies and some injuries to some impact players contributed to back to back 7-9 seasons. For the defense, losing Keanu Neal was a huge blow, perhaps the biggest one the team suffered overall. He is already a Pro Bowl strong safety and brought an immediate impact to a defense that sorely needs it on the back end, and he has been sorely missed these past two years.
Neal went down for the season in 2018 with a torn ACL. The following season, he unfortunately suffered a season ending Achilles injury. When Neal is on the field, the defense is clearly a different animal entirely, but we haven’t gotten to see that in a while. So the question I ponder is, how would the Falcons have fared if Keanu Neal was on the field in 2018 and 2019?
When I look at the seasons that Neal was active, the Falcons posted season records of 11-5 and 10-6. During those years, the defense had a level of competitiveness and physicality that was good enough to keep them in games when the offense had issues scoring. There is this saying around the league that nothing changes a game like a big hit. Neal delivered those on a regular basis, as the below clip illustrates.
If Neal was in the field in 2018 and 2019, the Falcons would’ve certainly been more competitive. His athleticism, leadership and physical play would’ve certainly helped a defense that was sorely missing those attributes, especially the last two items. Could they have been a playoff team either year? Quite possibly yes, because there’s no replacing leadership on either side of the ball when games are coming down to the wire, and the Falcons defense is just a much better defense with him in the fold. They were also 7-9 both years and the defense as plagued by With a healthy Neal on the field, I really believe the defense would’ve been at least average, and that would’ve led to at least 1-2 more wins each season.
If there is any silver lining to losing Neal for the previous seasons, the Falcons have built some solid depth at the safety position since, even if not all those players are under contract next year. They have Damontae Kazee, who can adequately play either position and we could be seeing some big nickel sets going forward with Neal returning, and rookie Jaylinn Hawkins figures to be a big piece going forward. The run defense also automatically gets a boost with him playing in the box in key situations, and we might finally be reminded of what this defense can be with a playmaker and tone setter on the back end.
Needless to say, with Neal back in the fold we can expect that same physical and intense play we’ve always seen from him, and here’s hoping he’ll have a healthy 2020.