Welcome to the latest edition of “Grinding the Tape.” This week, we’ll be looking at new Bucs safety Keanu Neal.

First, a quick background on the seventh-year defensive back. Neal was originally drafted No. 16 overall in 2016 by the Atlanta Falcons. Over the course of his first five seasons with Atlanta, he logged 338 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions. In 2021, Neal signed a one-year deal with Dallas that came with a position switch to linebacker. He was able to post 72 tackles and a sack with the Cowboys.

Now, coming to the Bucs, Neal is switching back to safety. He will compete with Mike Edwards and Logan Ryan to play alongside Antoine Winfield, Jr. in the Bucs’ defensive backfield. We profiled Ryan in a previous session of GTT.

In order to provide the best picture of Neal’s potential contributions to the Bucs, I decided to look at his 2020 tape when he was playing safety as opposed to last year when he wasn’t. For this session of GTT, I evaluated Neal’s 2019 games against Las Vegas (Week 12), Carolina (Week 8), Dallas (Week 2), and Minnesota (Week 6).

Full disclosure on these clips: NFL Game Pass does not have All-22 angles for any games prior to 2021. So, unfortunately, these clips will be off of the original broadcast angles.

Neal’s Reputation Is For Real

If you have followed Neal’s career at all, you are bound to know that his calling card is one of a heavy hitter who likes to dish out highlight-reel tackles. And the reputation is well-deserved. Take a look at just a couple of the vicious hits he has dished out in his career.

The dude can lay a ball carrier flat out. He is absolutely at his best when he keeps the play in front of him, uses his quick and powerful first step to work downhill and gets to operate in a short area. The results can be quite poetic.

But is that all he can do? Nope. Not even close. Neal isn’t anywhere close to perfect. There are limitations to his game, but he can still be a solid contributor to a strong defense. Here are some other ways Neal can add value.

Good Run Fits

The big hits naturally lend themselves to giving Neal a good reputation as a run defender. And for the most part, it fits. Neal has enjoyed Pro Football Focus run defense grades above 65.0 in 2017, 2018 and 2020. Here is a good example of him at his best against the run.

When Neal makes the right read and keeps his gap integrity, he can (and does!) re-route an entire play. Watch as he commits to the front side responsibility and flows downhill to seal the edge. Mike Davis sees him and knows he cannot break the run to that side, and he begins to try and find a lane to cut back to. Unfortunately, Neal’s teammates don’t do a great job of uncovering and Davis was able to work this for a good gain. It shouldn’t take away from Neal’s great job of stopping the initial design of the play.

This was probably my favorite rep of all four games. Let me set the scene: It’s fourth-and-short. The Panthers are down by two and just outside of field goal range in the second half. They decide to go for it. Now, Neal makes this play even though he doesn’t make the tackle. How? By reading the outside run, getting down into his gap and blowing up the fullback, who is acting as the lead blocker. In doing so, he creates a hole big enough for Jones to slip into and stop the running back for a loss and a turnover on downs. Magnificent!

Not-So-Good Run Fits

However, Neal can get caught making the wrong read and leaving his gap open, like on the following play against Dallas.

Neal has front-side responsibility on this outside zone play. His first duty is to get wide and cut off the edge. However, Neal falls for Ezekiel Elliott’s juke move behind the line. He gets worried that Elliott may cut back and he tries to protect an inside gap. The problem is, that isn’t his responsibility, as Jones is in perfect position to handle it. Neal gives up the front side and this goes for a good gain.

Coverage

Logan Ryan was the offseason addition hailed for his ability to cover the middle of the field. But he isn’t the only safety that can do it. Neal isn’t going to be able to hang with elite athletes, but against the average NFL tight end, he’s got chops.

Watch Neal on respond to this mesh route. He communicates well with linebacker Deion Jones to ensure the two of them don’t pick each other, then he stays on top of No. 16 through the route.

Here’s another one on a more vertical route against tight end Ian Thomas.

Neal gives a good bump off the line and then stays on Thomas as he releases upfield, continuing to use his hands. I am a little concerned that his penchant for keeping his hands on his man may lead to some flags.

But as I wrote before, Neal can be exposed against better athletes. Take a look at this play against Minnesota.

You can see Neal release with Irv Smith Jr. (No. 84) at the snap. Both leave the screen as the camera follows the ball. As Kirk Cousins looks downfield, he immediately picks up Smith, who has created all sorts of separation against Neal. This leads to a big catch and run.

Decision-Making

Neal does make the wrong read in zone coverage more than you would like. It goes back to him being better as a box safety working against the run. He just doesn’t seem to have a great feel for how plays develop behind him. He really works best when he can keep everything in front of him.  Here’s an example on a goal line stand against Minnesota. Try not to look at the ball so much as at Neal playing at the top of your screen.

Watch as he breaks out to cover the slot receiver heading to the flat. The problem is, the corner is already there playing the flat zone. By breaking wide, Neal allows the outside receiver an easy release on the slant. Cousins misses the read, electing to throw into double coverage underneath. But if he had seen the slant, it would have been a relatively easy touchdown.

That’s not to say that Neal always makes poor reads. There was enough tape of him making quick, confident decisions that enabled him to do what he does best. Namely, it allows him to work decisively toward the ball.

Neal sees Cousins look left, sees the flat developing and starts working down on it before Cousins can even release the ball. This allows him to knock Smith out of bounds for a gain of just a single yard.

He diagnoses the screen quickly, drives down on it and blows it up before any offensive lineman could get a hat on him. That’s an awesome rep.

Athleticism

As I mentioned before, Neal is a limited athlete. While he has an explosive first step that has aided him in becoming the impressive downhill player that he is, he lacks the top-end speed and agility that would allow him to operate consistently in space. That could limit his role in the Bucs’ defense. Here is an example against Dalton Schultz of the Cowboys.

Now, I will readily admit this was a great schemed-up touch by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Neal gets picked by the inside release of the receiver, while Schultz breaks for the flat for a wide-open touch. But I am more interested in what happens once Schultz gets the ball. He is able to break Neal down and get the corner, adding 11-12 yards after the catch.

Here’s one more for good measure.

I believe this clip is a bit unique. Neal was able to stop this play for a short gain. However, ultimately, he gave up the first down precisely due to his athleticism. He was quick to read and react. But watch as he tracks Curtis Samuel out of the backfield. The two of them cover the same ground laterally. But watch the difference in vertical space. Samuel moves up from the 37 to the 30 in the same amount of time it takes Neal to move from 27. That’s a difference of four yards, and in this instance, it’s also the difference between a fourth down and a first down.

Deep Zones

This is the area that Neal struggles in most. Watching him, it seems like he is aware of his limited speed and tries to cheat by putting very little into a backpedal and bailing early to a full sprint. This leads to him not seeing the play develop, since his back is to it. Additionally, he can get turned around easily. He can’t do this as a deep safety in the Bucs’ base Cover 3 scheme. It will lead to easy reads for opposing quarterbacks to take advantage of.

Watch at the outset of the play as Neal drops to his deep zone. His hips are immediately turned to the outside, giving Amari Cooper easy inside leverage. Cooper takes advantage, and by the time the pass arrives, he has two yards of separation on Neal and makes a fantastic catch on a slightly overthrown ball.

Here again, there’s an immediate bail. No backpedal. No ability to read the run and potentially be involved in the tackle.

Again, a quick full bail. This one was curious, given Carolina’s personnel grouping. That’s a heavy package with the lone wide receiver on the far side of the field. Why did Neal feel it necessary to drop hard and fast, taking himself out of the run fit and potentially limiting the play?

How Can The Bucs Best Use Neal?

Coming into this evaluation, I knew Neal’s reputation. But watching him over the course of these several games, that reputation was certainly reinforced. But in addition, I came to appreciate several other aspects of his game. And there is a great role I think he can carve out on the Bucs’ defense.

On early downs against 12 personnel, Neal is an ideal strong safety who can come into the box to assist in the run game and help make up for the loss of Jordan Whitehead. If an offense chooses to pass, Neal has enough athleticism to cover most tight ends.

Then, on long and late downs, Neal can give way to a playmaker like Mike Edwards. One thing is for certain, though. Between Neal, Ryan and Edwards, Bucs head coach Todd Bowles has the ability to play chess and not checkers this year.

I, for one, am very much looking forward to it.

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About the Author: Joshua Queipo

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fredster
fredster
21 days ago

He should be a good fit for what he was brought here to do which is play box safety like Whitehead.

Horse
Horse
20 days ago

I’m wondering why he wouldn’t be a better fit at LB; it looks to me that would be a better fit as a back up at his age?

scubog
scubog
Reply to  Horse
19 days ago

“At his age”? Horse, the guy isn’t even 30 yet.