Neal could be the X-factor

Rookie strong safety Keanu Neal was drafted to add a physical presence to the defense and help cover running backs and tight ends.

Neal, who suffered a right knee injury in the third exhibition game against Miami on Aug. 25, returned to practice after knee surgery and could be available against the Saints.

The Falcons need him.

They continue to have problems covering tight ends. Opposing tight ends have caught 15 passes — in 16 targets — including two touchdowns.

Oakland’s Clive Walford was wide open on a 31-yard touchdown catch in last week’s win.

“We love that part of Keanu’s … game,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said when asked about his ability to cover tight ends. “If it doesn’t work that way, we have other guys that we can (use) and find those matchups, but it would certainly help, knowing he’ll be a factor in how we want to play.”

The Saints signed tight end Coby Fleener in free agency, but the former Indianapolis Colt is off to a slow start. He has just three receptions for 35 yards.

“We’re excited about it,” Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “He’s a really, really good player.”

If Neal isn’t ready, Kemal Ishmael will continue to man the strong safety spot.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.