When Keanu Neal's right knee buckled and he went to the ground Thursday night, the immediately thought was something far worse than "minor" injury or "minor" procedure. The immediate thought was: torn ACL, total reconstruction, there goes a significant part of the Falcons' defensive makeover.
So in that sense, when it was announced Friday that their rookie safety will have only "minor" surgery and will miss "3-4 weeks," there was some relief. But this still doesn't bode well for a team determined to get off to a good start this season, facing three NFC South Division opponents in the first four weeks after going 1-5 in the division a year ago.
The Falcons' official statement:
The Falcons would not specify the injury but the most common injury in this case is damaged cartilage. The type of injury Neal suffered and the 3-4 week prognosis generally suggests degenerative changes and articular cartilage damage.
That's better than a torn ligament, obviously, but still will cause soreness and require a careful rehab period. If the injury is as minor as the Falcons suggest and sidelines Neal for only 3-4 weeks, he'll will miss 1-2 games. The Falcons open the season in 16 days, Sept. 11 against Tampa Bay.
Here's the concern:
• Neal, middle linebacker Deion Jones and outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell -- all rookies, all competing for starting jobs -- bring an element of speed on defense that the Falcons have lacked at the second and third levels. That's key to Dan Quinn's defense. All three players have looked strong in practices and the preseason. But this is already Neal's second somewhat significant injury, having missed an exhibition with an undefined "trunk" injury.
• Dwight Freeney, signed as a free agent, missed Thursday's exhibition loss at Miami with reported tightness in his back. The ailment is probably minor, but any time you're dealing with a defensive lineman and a back issue -- particularly one who is 36 years old -- there's a level of concern. The Falcons project Freeney to play 15 to 20 snaps per game as a pure pass rusher, mostly in third-and-long situations.
• If the Dolphins' game is any indication, Matt Ryan and the offense are still suffering some hiccups with the scheme. More weight is generally given to the third exhibition than the first two because starters play for a longer period, even though it's still the preseason and there's little in the way of game-planning (or, to a degree, effort). If the offense struggles early this season, the Falcons will need strong defensive play to carry them.
The Falcons' difficult six-game start: Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at New Orleans, Carolina, at Denver, at Seattle. A split would look pretty good there.
So yes, the Keanu Neal injury could've been much worse. But this isn't a team that can afford even moderately bad news.
Tweets from Neal since the injury:
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