Neal fine with league’s new helmet-hitting rule

Falcons safety Keanu Neal discusses his trip to the Pro Bowl, his plans to improve his tackling and how the defense will get better in 2018. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

Team’s big-hitting Pro Bowler keeps his head out of the action

Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal, the team’s designated big-hitter, is just fine with the National Football League’s new tackling rule. The rule, still being formulated, disallows a player lowering his head to use his helmet to deliver a hit. It can result in a 15-yard penalty or an ejection.

“We do a good job here of keeping our head out of the tackle,” Neal said on Wednesday. “We talk about Falcon-rolling, tackling behind the ball carrier, putting our head behind them instead of in front of him. There are things that we are working on here that are really going to counter-act that rule.”

Neal was second on the team with 113 tackles last season and was an first alternate for the Pro Bowl. He also forced three fumbles and had one interception while providing the defense with a bone-rattling physical presence.

The Falcons’ way of tackling is commonly referred to as rugby-styled tackling.

“As a kid, you grow up learning to put your head across the ball,” Neal said. “Bite the ball, get in front and then drive. But now, with the rule changes and everything, we are taught to keep our head out of the game. Now, our head is behind the ball carrier and we are rolling.”

The Falcons and Seahawks, where Falcons coach Dan Quinn was an assistant at his previous stop, are the leaders in the rugby-styled tackling.

“It’s a safer way of tackling, but there is still a lot of impact,” Neal said.

Players around the league will have a period of adjustment if they elect to follow the Falcons lead with safer tackling.

“Like anything, it’s tough breaking old habits,” Neal said. “But once you continue to work on it and continue to attack, you’ll eventually break it.”

Last season, the Falcons’ defense improved from 27th to eighth in scoring defense, 25th to ninth in total yards, 17th to ninth in rushing yards and 28th to 12th in passing yards.

Neal believes there is room for more growth in the 2018 season.

“We can be great,” Neal said. “The sky is the limit for us. We just have to stay together. Continue to work. Continue to build on what we started.”

However, the turnover margin slipped the past season.

The Falcons were down from 22 takeaways to 16 in 2017. Overall, the turnover margin was minus-2, which ranked 19th in the league after being a plus-11 and ranking fourth in 2016.

“I know what we can be,” Neal said. “We are not finished. We are still growing. Still building on what we started. That’s a cool accolade (being a top 10 defense). It’s not where we want to be.”

Quinn wants to see Neal improve his decision making. He can’t go for the “kill shot” every time. There are some cases were a nice efficient tackle would be best for the unit.

“With me, one of the things was missed tackles,” Neal said. “I think my aggressive nature, just knowing when to make the efficient tackle, that’s one thing that they mentioned to me. Then also making plays on the ball.”

Neal is already working eliminating his missed tackles.

“I would say that it is going back to the basics, going back to the techniques,” Neal said. “That’s what we work on. Gathering and things like that. Going up to make the tackle, start to break down and shorten your stride and make the play.”

Neal, who had one interception, had a botched interception in the divisional playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles.

“That’s also something that I’ve been working a lot on this offseason, catching and things like that,” Neal said. “I’m excited for this year.”

One of the perks of his production was a trip to the Pro Bowl in just his second season in the league.

“The Pro Bowl was awesome,” Neal said. “Hanging out with the guys, getting to know them. Meeting guys that I looked up to. That was a cool opportunity. A cool moment.”

So far, the offseason has been slow motion for Neal.

“Taking care of the body is definitely huge,” Neal said. “I do the things like Pilates to stay strong. The smaller muscles are something that we don’t usually strengthen. Recovery is huge. Finding a routine and sticking to it.”