FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When an original movie enthralls and captivates its audience with originality and excitement, the sequel is hard-pressed to match that feeling. Keanu Neal's second season, however, may turn out much closer to "The Empire Strikes Back" than "Jaws 2."
As a rookie, Neal finished second on the team with 106 total tackles. He defended nine passes and forced five fumbles while starting 14 games for the Falcons.
Neal is part of a defense that shows a lot of potential, and he said they are putting in enough work to make the step forward that many are anticipating in 2017.
"No question," Neal said after a training camp practice. "We want to be the best, and we definitely put in the work. We continue to grow, as far as chemistry and just playing fast and continuing to grow. On a personal level, it's an awesome experience just being with the guys and continuing to grow with them. We want to be the best, and we're continuing to strive for that each day."
The average age of the Falcons' projected starting defense is 25.9 years old. In 2016, the average age of NFL defenses was 26.6 years old, according to Football Outsiders. Neal was one of four rookies to start in last year's Super Bowl, an NFL record.
Coach Dan Quinn has often talked about the type of improvement a player can make from his first year to his second, and then from his second to his third. Including nickel back Brian Poole, the Falcons have six starters on defense who are entering Year 2 or Year 3. For Neal, he said he's already starting to feel the positive effects of having a season of experience.
"Just being comfortable with the defense, having a better understanding," Neal said. "With that, it allows you to play faster. Just continuing to harp on the details and everything, that's always a big emphasis. The knowledge that I have now, going into Year 2, that I've gained from Year 1, it helped me out a lot."
Lining up further away from the line of scrimmage, safeties tend to see the entire field with a bit more clarity. Oftentimes, it will fall on them to call out information and make adjustments so that the defense is aligned properly and in the right coverage.
With a rookie playing beside him, starting free safety Ricardo Allen played a large role in organizing the defense last season. Allen doesn't expect that to be the case moving forward, as he's seen a big improvement in Neal's understanding of the game.
"Just noticing the defense more, noticing offensive formations," Allen said of the areas where Neal has progressed. "The communication is up to par, man. You don't have those rookie jitters, anymore. He's just ready to go. He was already a guy who played at a very fast speed, so now, (there's) no thinking at all.
"He makes it much easier for me. He's out there, and I don't have to worry about the run alerts and all that kind of stuff. I can just strictly focus on pass alerts, and he's done a really good job of both saying run – because he does a really good job of studying – and also pass. He's helping me a lot with his communication, because he's noticing a lot."
Prior to the snap, there can be a flood of mental checkpoints that he has to make. It's noisy both externally and internally. Once that ball is snapped, however, there's no time to think.
"You can't think too much. You're going to think and anticipate a little bit, but when that ball is snapped, it's all about knowing your assignment, alignment and the details," Neal said. "Every play, you've got an assignment. Once you line up, you know your assignment and once that ball is snapped, you've got to stick with it. You've got to read your keys and flow with it. Then you've also got to know the indicators and things that could possibly come at you. So, post snap, you've got to be able to communicate and get your eyes to where they need to be.
"A lot of it is instinctual. You've got to be instinctive with it, you've got to put in the work in the film room to have an understanding of what might come at you and things like that so you're not out there blind."
Neal has the benefit of playing on a defense that has a nice blend of youth and experience. He's able to grow alongside players in the same situation he's in, while also relying on some of the team's veterans.
Although Neal says he's comfortable going to any of his teammates with questions, two of the mentors he can directly relate to are Kemal Ishmael and Allen. As safeties, Ishmael and Allen know first-hand what it's like to be in Neal's position. While Ishmael is expected to play a bit more of a hybrid role this year, he's still able to imbue some of his knowledge as a strong safety. Although, Ishmael speaks very highly of Neal's other advisor.
"Keanu learns from Rico (Ricardo Allen), and Rico is probably the best in the world at what he does," Ishmael said. "Rico, he has the talent, he can cover and the guy is smart. You know him and Keanu, when I was back there, we talked a lot and Rico is ahead of the game, man. And Keanu, that strong safety (position) it takes a while to learn, but as the season went on, he got better and better and better. He's a leader now, so I think he's doing a really good job."
Some lessons Neal had to learn on his own. Hearing something and experiencing it first-hand can be effective in entirely different ways.
Neal is actively learning from his veteran teammates, but he's also taking away a great deal from his rookie season. Some experiences continue to drive Neal, as he works hard to prepare for the encore to his splendid debut. "As a rookie, you're going to have growing pains, and I definitely had my share" Neal explained. "One play was going against Green Bay. They came out, guys alerted me about what was about to come, about what could possibly come, and as the guy being in the position that I was in, I knew I had to take that certain route that was coming. When it came, I knew it was coming, and I still didn't take it as much as I should have, and they threw it and caught it. It's just like, 'Man, what was I thinking?' To this day, it's something that I always think about. I've got to get that. That's not going to happen again, I'm not going to allow that to happen again."