The Falcons plan to stay “in-house” while attempting to replace their enforcer on defense, strong safety Keanu Neal.
Neal suffered a torn ACL in his left knee Thursday night and will miss the remainder of the season, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Friday.
Neal suffered the injury in the 18-12 season-opening loss to the Eagles.
The Falcons plan to use Damontae Kazeee in the secondary to replace Neal. The team also traded for strong safety Jordan Richards on Aug. 31 and can play nickel back Brian Poole at safety.
“Kazee is ready,” left cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “He’s a fire starter. He makes plays. He’s always around the ball. I’m excited to see what he’s going to do.”
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There are no plans to reach-out to safety Eric Reid, who along with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, are suing the NFL for collusion. Reid contends that he’s unemployed because of their racial and social-injustice protests during the national anthem.
Reid, a Pro Bowler in 2013, has played five seasons in the NFL and started 69 of 70 games.
The Falcons like their options on the roster. Kazee spent most of his time playing free safety and some nickel back during the exhibition season.
“We love Kazee’s style,” Quinn said. “We actually had (Ricardo Allen) down playing some strong as well. But it will certainly be a combination of that as Jordan gains experience in the system.”
Kazee was a fifth-round pick in 2017 out of San Diego State. He flourished on special teams while making the conversion from college cornerback to NFL safety last season.
He started to turn some heads during the exhibition season with some bone-rattling hits.
“Kazee has really improved, and I think you guys have seen that through the offseason,” Quinn said. “He’ll be ready for an extended role for sure.”
Richards was a second-round pick from Stanford in 2015. He played well on special teams, but struggled in New England’s defense.
“That’s why we traded for Jordan,” Quinn said when asked if they needed a bigger strong safety. “We’ll stay in-house first. I think we have a good option there with him. A good option with Kazee as we are working him into it. That’s where our focus will go in the immediate (future). We’ve used Brian (Poole) in that role some as well. He’s a good tackler, and he can guard as well.”
The Falcons are going to miss Neal.
“His physical nature is one that he plays like a linebacker, but is fast enough to play in the middle part of the field and play outside,” Quinn said. “We’ll certainly miss him because of that attitude that he plays with.”
Quinn said it was a tough and emotional day for the team, which reviewed the loss to the Eagles and received the news about Neal.
“It’s very disappointing,” defensive end Takkarist McKinley said. “Keke is a leader on this team. Our best player. So, losing him, somebody else has to step up. We all have to step up ... and go without him.”
Quinn doesn’t believe that Neal aggravated the injury by returning to the game.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Quinn said. “It was one of those instances where they weren’t expecting the MRI and imagery to look like it did. The test that they assessed on the field, those things weren’t what they’d expect. We got to discover that this morning, he was certainly heart broken as well.”
The players saw how Neal tried to play through the injury.
“The crazy part about it was that he was still ... I don’t know how many plays he did on it,” Trufant said. “I don’t know how you replace a guy like that. We just have to pray for him and pick up the slack.”
Neal appeared to be fine as he walked off the field under his own power in the third quarter.
“When you are playing the game, you don’t really know what’s going on around you,” said Trufant, who also left the game with cramps in his calf. “Afterwards, once I found out, it was amazing to see how he was still able to compete at a high level. That just says a lot about him. It’s tough. I feel for him. He’ll bounce back.”
Trufant suffered a season-ending torn pectoral injury in 2016. He has some advice to offer Neal.
“It’s hard just because it’s such a slow process,” Trufant said. “We are just used to pushing ourselves to the limit every chance we get. With rehab, you’ve got to take it slow. You really have to follow the doctor’s orders and take it slow. Then once it’s time to push yourself and get back to it, then get back to it.”
Neal played 37 of 72 defensive snaps (51 percent) against the Eagles.
Kazee played 35 snaps (49 percent) against the Eagles. He had a big hit on Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert that led to an interception by linebacker Deion Jones.
Neal was named to the Pro Bowl following the 2017 season and has played in 31 games since joining the Falcons as a first-round draft selection in 2016. He has totaled 220 tackles (154 solo) with one interception, 15 passes defensed and eight forced fumbles.