A slimmer and fit Keanu Neal took the field with the first-team defense Thursday in the Falcons’ first scrimmage of training camp.
Neal, the Falcons’ hard-hitting safety, is trying to make it back from his second consecutive season-ending injury, a ruptured right Achilles.
Neal, whose weight is down from 225 to 212 pounds, looked good at his old spot.
“I feel great,” Neal said. “I’m happy to be in this space. It’s been a lot of work. We’re back. It feels awesome. I’m glad to be around the guys. So, it’s an exciting time.”
The leaner Neal believes he can make it back.
“I slimmed down for a reason just so that I can move better,” Neal said. “Kind of get back to my rookie weight. So, it’s been working out really well. I’m moving around a lot better. I’m moving around like myself. So, I’m excited with where I’m at.”
Last offseason, Neal battled back from major knee surgery. Everything was moving along just fine until the third game of the season, when he ruptured his Achilles against the Colts.
He’s made another rigorous rehabilitation journey.
“It makes my heart feel good to see him on the field because he has such a presence,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “So, yesterday, each of the days, he’s come back, he’s worked so hard to put himself in this position. Each day he’s gaining more confidence, gaining his appreciation for the smallest details. It’s been a good start for him.”
Neal, who battled through the arduous rehabilitation during the coronavirus pandemic, relied on his religious faith to help him through the rough patches.
“It was just my faith, honestly,” Neal said. “Just believing that God has a purpose for everything. I’m in this space. Everything happens for a reason. Now, it’s just putting in the work and trusting in him. I don’t really stress about the mental side much. I just put in the work, and all of my faith is in him.
“Whatever happens, happens. It’s in his plan.”
Being away from the team last season was tough.
“Just getting hurt again and not being with the guys,” Neal said. “That was really the hardest part for me. You put in so much work to get back and the season gets taken away from you again. That was by far the hardest part. Not being able to play with the guys and be out there with the team and contribute the way I can.”
In 2017, Neal’s last healthy season, he went to the Pro Bowl. If he can make it all the way back, the Falcons’ defense would improve dramatically.
“If No. 22, Mr. Neal, stays healthy ... that defense is improved a great deal,” said Gil Brandt, a former NFL executive and a Pro Football Hall of Fame member.
With Neal out last season, the Falcons ended up moving Ricardo Allen to strong safety and Damontae Kazee took over at free safety. The Falcons are planning to use all three in some alignments.
“It’s just understanding different rules,” Neal said. “We all are going to play in different spaces. It’s going to be cool and unique how they are going to use us this year. I’m looking forward to it.”
Quinn and the defensive staff are working through their options in the secondary.
“How do you match up a player and their strengths,” Quinn said. “Ricardo and his football smarts. He’s so effective in certain types of coverages where there is a disguise and he can hold and go until late. Where (Neal’s) strengths are playing man-to-man and being down in the box as an enforcer, as a hitter. Kazee from the ball-skills standpoint and his ability to break out of the middle of the field.
“Trying to find the moments to put them in the best spaces, that’s what these next few weeks are about.”
The early results have been promising.
“Fortunately for us, those are three guys that really work in concert well,” Quinn said. “Their communication, their ability on the field. So, it’s been good to have all three of them on the field. That might be the case for a number of different packages.”
Quinn acknowledges that there is some rust that Neal has to shake off.
“Now it’s about reps and getting his eyes right, his technique down,” Quinn said. “He’s worked extremely hard on the physical side. Over the next few weeks, it’s about getting his football in order.”
Neal feels things coming into place daily.
“Recently, I kind of told myself that I’m starting to get my groove back,” Neal said. “I’m starting to see things again. A play that I can be faster on. I saw that after the fact. Next time I get that, I can be there. It’s all coming back.”
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