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‘It’s all coming back’: Keanu Neal’s return and what it means for Falcons


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https://theathletic.com/2011434/2020/08/20/its-all-coming-back-keanu-neals-return-and-what-it-means-for-falcons/
 

As Dan Quinn looked out across the practice field on the first day of training camp, he smiled. Maybe it was a smile at being out on the field amidst so much uncertainty as to whether a season actually could happen in 2020. Maybe it was a smile because the weather in Flowery Branch has been relatively mild the past couple of weeks, without the thick humidity August is known for in Georgia. But follow Quinn closely, and you’ll see that his smile forms when his eyes land on one specific player.

Back healthy and in a uniform once more, that player is Keanu Neal.

“It makes my heart feel good to see him on the field,” Quinn said.

It’s easy to understand why after the injuries that have befallen Neal: an ACL tear in 2018, ending his season just as it began, and then a ruptured Achilles just three games into the 2019 season. We don’t have to dwell on what was because Neal isn’t. He stayed ready for his comeback, through every surgery and every rehab session.

Still, on that first day, Quinn had to pull him off to the side.

“On the first day I was just so excited for him,” Quinn said. “I said, ‘You really worked your *** off to put yourself back on the field, to put yourself into this spot.’”

Neal looks a bit different than he has the past two years. Normally, he has been in the 220-225 weight range. At the start of this year’s camp, however, he’s down to 212.

Neal said he’s back closer to his rookie weight. He’s lighter on his feet, too. That, Quinn said, was by design, and it was a decision that Neal is feeling the effects of now that the Falcons have started ramping up their live scrimmage reps.

“I slimmed down for a reason, just so I could move better,” Neal said. “It’s been working out really well. I’m moving around a lot better. I’m moving around like myself. I am excited with where I’m at.”

Physically, Quinn and those around Neal would say you would never know this is the same player who, in back-to-back years, suffered injuries that have altered many careers singularly, let alone together. In 2020, Neal doesn’t look like an injured player. But there still is a little bit of catching up for Neal to do and do quickly, and he knows that.

It isn’t his physical shape that he’s focusing on during the first week of padded practice. But as Quinn said, it’s his “football shape” that Neal is honing in on currently.

“When I say that, I’m talking about the eyes, the technique, his run fits,” Quinn said.

Like anything, football is habitual. It has its moments that for someone playing the game and in the thick of it every day are things they don’t have to think about. The body acts before the mind has to tell it to.

It’s like a musician playing an instrument. If the maestro stops playing for two years, when they finally do pick their instrument back up, it’ll take a few minutes to get the feel of the instrument again and to fall back into practice. After two years working back from his injuries, Neal is picking his instrument back up, and he’s returning to maestro form.

“Throughout these first couple of practices I have noticed things where I will be in the play, and it will happen and then afterwards I’ll be like, ‘Dang, I could have done this,'” Neal said.

Then, the chords start returning to him, and the melody starts to form again. And now?

“Recently, I kind of told myself that I have started to get my groove back,” Neal said with a smile.

It’s all coming back to him, he said. He’s starting to see the plays form in front of him. He’s starting to fall back into his habits. And Neal doing so is one of the best things that could happen for the secondary.

The question now is as Neal returns back to form, what does that mean for the secondary with players like Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen having held things down in Neal’s absence? It’s actually not all that complicated, according to Quinn. The coaches know what strength each player has, and they know the situations in which each player thrives. The focus is on fine-tuning exactly when to bring them together.

Allen has the “football smarts,” he’s very effective in specific coverages where there’s a disguise. Kazee has terrific ball skills. He has the ability to break out of the middle of the field and make a play. Neal is a natural in man-to-man coverage. He’s an enforcer, someone the Falcons can have down in the box, disrupting an offense.

“So, trying to find the moments to put them in the best spaces, that’s what these next few weeks are about,” Quinn said. “Fortunately for us, those are three guys that really work in concert together well — their communication, their ability on the field. So, it’s been good to have all three of them on the field, and that will be the case for a number of different packages.”

The coaches and Neal’s teammates have been waiting for Neal’s return. Now that it’s here, there’s much to discuss about what it means for the safeties, but it seems no one is more excited to figure that out than Neal.

“It’s just understanding different roles,” Neal said about his position group. “We are all going to play in different spaces. So, it’s going to be cool and unique to see how they use us this year.”

Practice notes and observations 

• Marlon Davidson, Jamon Brown and Evin Ksiezarczyk did not participate in Thursday’s scrimmage. Quinn announced Wednesday that Brown was in concussion protocol. Davidson and Ksiezarczyk were at practice but were in jerseys and shorts observing. Ksiezarczyk had a brace on his left knee but appeared to be moving around without issue. Davidson also didn’t seem to be in any visible discomfort walking around the sidelines.

• Chris Rowland and Brandon Powell got the nod on punt and kickoff returns. Quinn said there will be others rotated in to test in those roles, but Thursday’s scrimmage was specifically blocked off for Rowland and Powell to get the majority of those reps. Also of note, Powell did some good things working out of the slot with the second- and third-team offense. He was targeted a few times and made a couple of nice grabs.

• After spending much of Wednesday with the second-team offensive line, Matt Hennessy worked primarily with the first team at left guard on Thursday. James Carpenter and Matt Gono spent much of Thursday with the second-team offense. Carpenter and Hennessy, however, switched teams for the final period of practice, which saw the Falcons working on their end-of-game play with around a minute on the clock.

• Brian Hill had a solid morning taking handoffs from Matt Schaub. After a nice run to the outside that set up the lone touchdown of the scrimmage, Hill showed he could be shaping up to be a real No. 2 behind Todd Gurley. Asked about Hill, Quinn said he is “100 percent a guy on a mission.” That showed a bit on Thursday.

• John Cominsky got a few more looks with the first-team defensive line, particularly in the final few periods of the scrimmage. Allen Bailey was also someone who was in the rotation a bit more on Thursday.

• It was noted Wednesday that even with Alex Mack returning to center after a scheduled day off, Justin McCray was still taking snaps at center. That changed a bit on Thursday as McCray spent much of the day at right guard with the second and third teams.

• Mykal Walker continues to turn a few heads during his first training camp. Thursday’s practice ended after Blidi Wreh-Wilson broke up a pass intended for Powell. The ball tipped into the arms of Walker for his second interception of camp. It was a moment that also came off the back of another turnover the defense forced in the end-of-game situation. Prior to Walker’s interception, Calvin Ridley lost the ball after catching a short pass from Matt Ryan, and Foye Oluokun recovered the fumble. It was an exciting end to practice for the defense, particularly for the linebackers.
 

 

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I love having all 3 safeties on the field together, especially the way they broke down each's strengths. I am happy that Neal is lighter, as I think that will have a huge effect on him staying healthy this year, however it doesn't bode well for my desires to have him at linebacker more this year. I get their strategy though and it makes sense for both he and the team.

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