It doesn’t seem like D.J. Moore saw him coming.
As Moore cut to the inside on his slant route, Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater delivered a pass to one of his top targets. With Moore gaining the initial inside position on the play, it had the makings of an intermediate completion.
Well, that was until Falcons safety Keanu Neal hit him hard and jarred the ball loose.
Neal read the play early and sprinted in Moore’s direction. As Moore got his hands on the ball, Neal delivered a crushing hit in his midsection. Moore fell to the ground, with the play resulting in an incompletion.
For the fifth-year safety, plays like this from the Falcons’ win over the Panthers on Oct. 29, have become more common of late. Over the past two weeks, Neal has shown signs of the former Pro Bowl-caliber player he was before the bulk of the past two seasons were taken away because of injury.
“I think in every game there were spurts of it -- spurts of feeling instinctive and everything,” Neal said. "But I think you get into the last two games, and the last two games I’ve felt really good, instinctive, like myself. But the whole season, I’ve felt like myself in some way, shape or form.”
Neal’s teammates and coaches have taken notice of a talented safety rounding back into who he was before an ACL tear ended his season after one game in 2018 and an Achilles tear cut his season short in 2019.
During the early part of the season, Neal said there were some areas of his game he needed to fine-tune. Receiver Julio Jones said Neal needed to get some confidence back after missing 28 games over two years. And Jones has started to see the star defender return to the player who opposing offenses fear on a weekly basis.
“He’s very competitive. He loves the game,” Jones said. "To have back-to-back injuries is very difficult to overcome. Knowing your organization believes in you and will keep giving you the opportunity to go out there to be who you are. His teammates, everybody, we’ve been behind him.
“He had to get his confidence back. That’s like everybody. If you’re coming off an injury, it’s definitely difficult to come right back and come out swinging. You’ve got to get your confidence back, you’ve got to be who you are. You can tell that (Neal) is back. He’s out there, he’s hitting people, he’s flying around. He’s doing a hell of a job for us.”
Said defensive tackle Grady Jarrett: “I definitely feel he’s feeling more like himself. He’s laying guys out and playing fast. You can tell he’s playing with that emotion, man. He’s going out there and having fun, cut it loose. It’s awesome to see. I think there’s so much room for him to get better.”
In the seven of the eight Falcons games he’s played in this season, Neal ranks second on the team with 53 tackles and also recorded a sack on a perfectly-timed blitz up the middle against the Detroit Lions. Over the past two games, Neal has posted 18 tackles and two quarterback hits. He’s been used more as a blitzer, too, with the Falcons opting for a much more aggressive approach on defense.
Without Neal in the lineup for the vast majority of the past two years, the Falcons haven’t had the enforcing presence he brings in the run and short passing game. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said that Neal has been able to bring that element back to the defense this season.
“We talk about the kill zone being this area right in front of the linebackers and behind the defensive line, where people should fear to catch the ball,” Ulbrich said. "I don’t know if that’s necessarily been the case. But him rounding back into form, people are starting to peek around, and people are starting to drop balls in that area. People are starting to be aware that he is roaming somewhere.
“For me, it brings a ton of joy because he’s one of those kids who loves this game at the highest level. For him to lose it for two years, you saw it affect his soul and the man that he is. For him to get back into form and play the brand of ball he’s accustomed to, it’s really cool to see.”
For Neal, being back after the tenuous rehab he endured is one thing. But to be back making the plays he became known for early in his career is another. Although his rookie contract is up after this season, Neal said he isn’t focused on what a good individual campaign will mean when it comes to free agency.
Instead, he’s just happy to be back playing the game he missed when injuries prematurely took the past two seasons away.
“It’s definitely great getting back out with the guys,” Neal said. “Being out the last two years and finally getting back and really going out and competing, it’s definitely a blessing. I’m extremely happy to be back with the guys I came in with and going out and ballin'. It’s definitely exciting, and I’m happy to be here.”
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