Thursday was an especially good, warm and fuzzy night to be Keanu Neal or Ricardo Allen, both of whom came back out of the dark and into the lights.
And they did it side by side, which made it better.
The Falcons’ safeties both went down early last season, Neal with a torn ACL in the season’s first game and Allen with a torn Achilles tendon in the third, and finally Thursday night they were back in uniform and smacking people when the Jets visited Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Their long, miserable rehabilitation work finally was complete. Surgeries became afterthoughts. All the angst burned while spending the Falcons’ first two exhibition games out of uniform was gone.
They started, and both registered tackles on the first possession of a game won by the Jets. Their jobs are once again secure, unlike so many young players on the roster, but for them that contest was anything but meaningless.
Neal said the weight was lifted even before contact, as players warmed up.
"It was actually before the game. I’m sitting there, and I’m kind of like, ‘Aw.’ It fell on me,” said Neal, a fourth-year strong safety from Florida. “I was like, ‘Dang, I can play.’ Like I said, it’s been a journey, but we’re back.”
Several front-liners made their preseason debuts Thursday while returning from injuries and surgeries that ended their seasons last year. That list included running back Devonta Freeman, who missed the final 14 games last season and underwent sports-hernia surgery.
“Behind the scenes, these three have put a lot of work in to get back, and to see them back in action for such an important part of our team, they didn't want to miss a minute,” coach Dan Quinn said. “Recognize them and how hard they worked to get ready. It was great to be back here with the guys.”
The Falcons sorely missed all three players last year. Allen serves as the quarterback of the defense, his voice, energy and counsel guiding teammates into position time and again.
“It was just cool to see my boys run out and just be able to know that this ain’t like another time where I had to watch; I actually get to go play with them,” said Allen, a fifth-year defensive back from Purdue.
“It was cool to just do it for the first time again. I made it out of the first game healthy. We just have to keep continuing to do that over and over.”
Quinn deployed the bulk of the first-string defense for most of the first half, and after the Jets sliced through them on the game’s first possession on an eight-play, 66-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard run around left end by Jets multi-man Ty Montgomery, they buckled down.
New York starting quarterback Sam Darnold played the first four possessions, but after the first thrust, the Jets managed 43 total yards on three drives, with most Falcons defensive starters still on the field minus middle linebacker Deion Jones.
Nickel back Demontae Kazee also left the field on the first possession with a rib injury. Edge rusher Vic Beasley chipped in a sack on a rare inside rush move.
“Wasn't happy how the defense started, but I thought they kind of came back after the first drive,” Quinn said after reserve linebacker Jermaine Grace again led the Falcons with tackles (six). “I didn't like how the first drive felt, for sure.”
Neal finished with three combined tackles and assists. Allen had two. Most defensive starters played most of the first half, and Neal smiled when it was over, glad to be working next to Allen again – and in uniform.
“It’s great, man. We competed with each other going through the rehab over at the facility (in Flowery Branch) and everything. Going out there and getting back to where we were, it’s awesome. It’s a great feeling ...” he said.
“We started off a little slow, but as time went on we got it going. I kind of got my feet wet today, but I think as time goes on I’ll be good to go.”
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