FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons coach Dan Quinn announced Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury on Thursday night in Philadelphia.
Neal left the field twice before being ruled out to return to the game early in the third quarter. Quinn said his medical staff wasn't necessarily expecting the MRI to show what it did after the assessment on the field, so when Neal found out the news that he would miss the rest of the season he was "heartbroken."
Losing a player of Neal's caliber is certainly a blow to the Falcons' defense. Neal is someone the Falcons rely heavily on, he's a tone-setter in many ways. His size and physique could make one think he's a linebacker, but he's got the speed to play safety.
But the Falcons feel good about two players they have on their roster who can step up in place of Neal and that's Damontae Kazee and Jordan Richards.
"We'll generally stay in house first, we think we have good options there," Quinn said. "That's where our focus will go in the immediate portion."
Kazee, the Falcons' fifth-round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, has been one of the most impressive players on the field during training camp and throughout the preseason. He's got a knack for the ball and plays with the physicality Quinn likes in his defensive players.
Through his performance this offseason, Kazee has earned the respect of his teammates, giving them confidence despite losing one of their best players.
"Kazee is ready," cornerback Desmond Tufant said. "He's a fire starter. He makes plays, he's always around the ball. I'm excited to see what he can do."
Richards, a former second-round draft pick by the Patriots, is still learning the system, but the Falcons have liked his game since he was coming out of Stanford in the 2015 NFL Draft and feel comfortable that he's a fit in Atlanta. The Falcons traded with the Patriots for Richards last weekend.
Neal has emerged into one of the leaders for the Falcons on defense so not only will the Falcons miss what he can bring from a physical standpoint, his leadership on the field is something they'll also miss.
That's also why defensive end Takkarist McKinley said, "It's a sad day for everybody" when asked about hearing the news of Neal's injury.
"All we can do is play for him," McKinley said.
And that's exactly what the Falcons will have to do moving forward with No. 22 on the sidelines.