FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Keanu Neal laughed. Yes, he has heard before that he seems older than he really is.
The 21-year-old strong safety, who has quickly emerged as both a leader and an enforcer for the Atlanta Falcons' defense, doesn’t carry himself like a rookie.
“You know, I don’t really think about it that much. I just continue to be who I am,” said Neal, who credits the “way I was raised” and the advice he got to “stay grounded and keep God first” from older brother Clinton Hart, who spent seven years in the NFL.
Neal certainly doesn’t carry himself as a rookie on the field either.
The 6-foot, 211-pounder has delivered some of the most punishing hits in the league this year while racking up 105 tackles and five forced fumbles (tied for third most in the NFL) in just 14 games played after recovering from a minor knee surgery in August.
“I said it during the week last time and after the game, I think Neal is a very, very talented player. He does a lot of things out there that make you think he’s a veteran,” Rodgers said of the first-round draft pick from Florida, who had eight tackles and a forced fumble when the Falcons beat Green Bay 33-32 in Week 8.
Neal had another nine tackles when the Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 in last week’s playoff game, fitting since former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has brought Seattle’s defensive style to Atlanta during his two years as the Falcons’ head coach.
“When you play a defense like this, which is kind of rooted in the Seattle concepts, you need that player as they do with Kam Chancellor. And Neal has really stepped in and done a fantastic job for ’em,” Rodgers said. “They hit you. I mean, they’re a tough bunch, very physical, they tackle well. It starts with [No.] 22.
“He’s one of the best tacklers in the league based on the way he’s played this season.”
Neal hardly gets the credit all to himself, though.
Remarkably, his 105 tackles ranked second among all NFL rookies this year, behind teammate Deion Jones, the Falcons’ middle linebacker who was drafted in the second round out of LSU.
Jones had 106 tackles and three interceptions in the regular season, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He intercepted another pass in the playoffs last week against the Seahawks.
Rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has started 11 games, including last week. Rookie Brian Poole stepped up as a part-time starter and nickel back, especially in the wake of Desmond Trufant’s injury.
And those guys all pale in comparison to the season that second-year Falcons pass rusher Vic Beasley had. Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in his breakout season, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Fellow second-year pro Grady Jarrett is a starting defensive tackle with three sacks this year. Third-year pro Ricardo Allen is a starting free safety with two interceptions. And second-year cornerback Jalen Collins also has played a big role since replacing Trufant as a starter with two picks.
Veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney said the impact of those young players is “huge,” and he has been pleasantly surprised by how the rookies have avoided hitting that rookie wall that is so common.
“At this point, you kind of think, ‘I don’t know, we’ve got these young guys, I don’t know if they can handle the moment,’ this, that and the other. But they’ve been handling it great,” Freeney said. “And I think that’s just really hats off to them and their focus and their attention. Think about it, those guys have been going since last year without any break. Most of those guys had to get ready for combines and all types of stuff. So for them to keep going and keep performing, it’s amazing.”
Neal, Jones and Collins all credited the coaching staff for creating a system where they can play fast and free without having to do too much thinking once they understand the concepts.
Quinn said the defense overall has been playing faster down the stretch this season, which is “why you’ve heard me say we’re a better version of ourselves than we were in the game that we played Green Bay earlier in the season.”
“It was very intentional with [general manager Thomas Dimitroff] and I to add speed to the team,” Quinn said. “It helps create more turnovers. The way we want to tackle defensively especially, it’s been a big factor for us.”
Obviously the Falcons’ offense gets most of the credit and attention -- and deservedly so.
But Rodgers insisted they aren’t the only unit that deserves credit.
“They do have a lot of young players, but very talented players,” Rodgers said. “It’s a very good defense. Those guys are not playing like rookies.
“As much as Matt [Ryan] and them deserve a lot of the credit, and probably get a lot of the notoriety, the way that they’ve played on defense -- especially last week, the way that they corralled that offense in Seattle -- was really outstanding.”