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Matchup to Watch: S Neal, LBs vs. TE Olsen

A look at the six Falcons named to the 2017 Pro Bowl roster - Vic Beasley Jr., Matt Bryant, Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, Alex Mack, and Matt Ryan.

It was a lesson Keanu Neal had to learn from experience.

In college, when the strong safety smothered an opponent downfield, the ball seldom came his way. The NFL, however, is different. Quarterbacks are more accurate. Receivers are more athletic. So even when you play man-coverage exactly as you're supposed to, you can give up big plays.

Ricardo Allen saw this happen to Neal a few times during the first half of 2016. In Allen's opinion, those "scars" helped Atlanta's first-rounder mature into a standout rookie – and someone capable of handling the sport's best pass-catchers.

"Most really good players learn from the mistakes that they make," Allen said, "and (Neal's) a guy that learns from all the mistakes that he has made before. He's given up some catches, but the majority of the time, he's either getting pass breakups or they're not throwing it or he's knocking the ball out."

Allen's assessment lines up with the numbers. In Neal's last two games, he's given up just eight catches on 14 targets (57.1 completion percentage) for 92 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. And he's certainly knocking the ball out at a high rate: his four forced fumbles rank third in the NFL.

"He's been doing really good in coverage," Allen added. "Week in and week out, we put him out there to guard some of the best tight ends in the league, and he's been getting better week by week."

Once again, Neal will be tasked with covering a premier tight end when the Falcons take on the Panthers Saturday afternoon. Carolina's Greg Olsen, who was named to his fourth Pro Bowl on Tuesday, is having one of the best campaigns of his NFL career, reeling in 71 catches for 992 yards and three touchdowns in 14 appearances. If he reaches 1,000 yards in 2016, he'll become the first tight end in NFL history to do in three consecutive seasons.

Neal won't be the only one guarding the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder. It'll take a group of Falcons to contain Olsen, and LB Paul Worrilow, who would fill in for De'Vondre Campbell (concussion) at linebacker if the rookie can't play, might to be a part of that effort.

Worrilow has gone up against Olsen more than a handful of times since entering the league in 2013 and said the key to neutralizing him "starts with formation recognition, where he's at on the field and what kind of stuff he likes when he's there."

Head coach Dan Quinn added that, because Olsen can be split out wide, "you'll see corners on him, safeties on him and linebackers on him, just depending on the different places that they feature him."

"We count on Keanu Neal a lot when we do a good bit of (man-to-man), but not all the time, and then when you play your zones, you better have awareness for where Greg is at," Quinn added. "For us, he's one of the more difficult matchups for sure."

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