FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons placed Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal on injured reserve Monday, and while his absence will certainly be felt, the team is confident in Damontae Kazee's ability to assume that role.
The versatile second-year safety was one of the standout players of the preseason, and he forced a turnover against the Eagles while taking Neal's place at strong safety. Kazee isn't nearly as big as Neal – he's 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds compared to the 6-foot-1, 216-pound Neal – but his physicality has given Falcons coach Dan Quinn confidence that he is up to the task of playing strong safety.
"We wouldn't change what we do, because they're both real physical guys, they're just different in how they apply it," Quinn said. "Where Keke (Neal) is strength and size, he plays more like a linebacker - if they all got on a scale together, he's bigger than the linebackers. Their style and attitude is the same. How we feature the players will be the same. But we'll certainly miss Keke just based on that size. But where he may make some big hits, Kazee will certainly make some as well. And we'll use him in the best ways we can, but our style won't look a lot different without Keanu."
Atlanta is evaluating all of its options at the position, and Jordan Richards, who the Falcons signed just prior to the start of the season, will also be in the mix. Still, Kazee is the player expected to get the first crack at replacing Neal.
Following the preseason Kazee had, in which he recorded 16 tackles, two pass defenses, one tackle for a loss and one interception, many wondered how the Falcons might find room for him in a crowded veteran secondary. While an injury isn't the way Atlanta wanted Kazee's role to increase, he appears ready to handle the responsibility.
"We have a lot of faith in Kazee and what he stands for and how he will play," Quinn said. "I think you all have seen, and I have too, he's probably a player who's making the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. And we see that all the time, guys who make that move, and it certainly seems like he's one that's making that jump this year."
Learning a new position shouldn't be a daunting prospect for Kazee, who has learned two different spots on the Falcons' defense already.
After playing cornerback in college at San Diego State, Kazee, who had 17 interceptions in his college career, was moved to free safety and nickel corner upon arriving in Atlanta. Despite his propensity for taking the ball away at the corner position, it was Kazee's tackling ability that led Quinn to believe he could handle the safety and nickel positions.
"We saw him tackle, and he was such an aggressive player," Quinn said. "So the same fearless tackling you see now, at San Diego State he had that in the same way at corner. Right when we drafted him we never even put him at corner. We just said we think he has the skill sets to play over at safety. Right when he arrived here we put him at safety and at nickel, and then when we said let's just leave him at one spot to learn we settled at free safety. And then this year, we went back to training him at two spots, where he could play safety and nickel. And now we'll do it again with strong safety."