Back from Achilles injury, Keanu Neal says confidence has returned

Falcons safety Keanu Neal (22) during a training camp practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, September 3, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Falcons safety Keanu Neal (22) during a training camp practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, September 3, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Over the past two seasons, Keanu Neal had been able to appear in a total of only four games. The Falcons' strong safety tore his ACL in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 and then tore his Achilles tendon during the third game of the 2019 season against the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s been a long road to recovery -- twice -- for Neal, who has been unable to play much actual football over the past two years. Neal spent the past year rehabbing, much as he did the year before, all to get ready for the 2020 campaign.

But two games in, Neal said he’s beginning to feel like himself again.

Having gone through a major injury in consecutive years, it was a challenge to get past the mental hurdle of worrying about another one occurring.

“Throughout training camp I started to build more confidence as time went on,” Neal said. “Obviously, I’m cleared and healed and everything. But there is always that mental side of things and going out and playing through everything. Throughout training camp, day by day I built the confidence and now I feel good.”

In two games, Neal has been active, as he is tied for second on the team with 12 total tackles. Neal played 51 of 62 snaps against the Seattle Seahawks and then 64 of 82 snaps Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.

Neal said that not only has he had to get into game shape, he’s also had to mentally adjust to his role for the 2020 season. The only way to catch up to where he was at the end of the 2017 season is to get game reps.

“When you’re away from the game for a while, you have to get back into it,” Neal said. “You can study as much as you want, but actually being out on the field and going through things is different. There was a mental side I had to break through, and I feel like I’m there.”

Neal also acknowledged that some mental hesitation can creep because of the risk of injury.

“It’s just part of it,” Neal said. “It’s trusting what you do. It’s trusting the work you put in and going out and playing the game and having faith. That’s the biggest thing.”

This season, Neal is a part of a three-safety rotation with Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee, with the defensive backs going on and off the field depending on the formation and situation. Given the two major injuries, Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said Neal has seen more snaps than he expected because Allen suffered an elbow injury.

While the Falcons want to get Neal plenty of game reps, the coaching staff wants to ensure it doesn’t put him in a risky situation.

“He was able to play a little bit more (against Dallas), probably a little bit more than you’d want to right away with a guy coming off of two years of injury,” Morris said. “You want to ease him back into it a little bit. He’s one of those every-down players. He’s built for it. He knows how to do it. He’s going to put himself in position to make the plays he needs to make. We’ll get him going in the future here -- hopefully this week.”

Neal said he felt better about his performance against the Cowboys, although he did acknowledge his mistake in coverage against receiver Amari Cooper on a 58-yard reception. Neal said he acted as if he were going to play down in the box before dropping into coverage. Neal said he didn’t get enough depth on the drop, which is why Cooper was able to make his move and spring open on the post pattern.

But as far as how he feels now that he’s seen some game action, Neal noticed a big difference from the first week to the next.

“(I’m) playing like myself,” Neal said. “I think the first game I was out there playing, but there were certain things where I wasn’t as fluid or moving the way I wanted to. Last game, I felt like I was.”

On Sunday, Neal and the secondary will look keep the Chicago Bears from doing what Seattle and Dallas were able to do against the Falcons through the air. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson completed 89 percent of his throws for 322 yards and four touchdowns, with Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott completing 72 percent of his passes for 450 yards and a score.

With the Falcons in a 0-2 hole, Neal said the defense has remained optimistic at practice.

“The mentality has been great,” Neal said. “We went into practice ready to roll, ready to go. The mindset is being 1-0 now. That’s really where we’re at. The last two games happened, but now our focus is Chicago. Beat Chicago, we’re 1-0. That’s where we’re at, that’s where we’re thinking.”

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