Keanu Neal has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches in 2016, and after two solid performances out west, the young safety has started to garner praise from the national media, too.
Former DB and current NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks listed Neal among his top 10 rookies for Week 7, placing the first-rounder at No. 8. Pro Football Focus did a similar countdown and slotted him at No. 9. And in the MMQB, Peter King named the 6-foot, 211-pounder as one of three defensive players who stood out when Atlanta took down the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Neal has fared well for an assortment of reasons — perhaps the most important being his sound tackling. He has been credited with 20 solo tackles in four games, and according to Pro Football Focus, has yet to miss a single one.
"The thing I'm most impressed with so far is the tackling," head coach Dan Quinn said of Neal. "Man is he playing physical. We knew that part of his game was going to come to life, but it's the style, attitude, and the way that he tackles that really jumps out to us. We've been very pleased with that part."
Neal has been effective in coverage, as well. Per PFF, he's allowed 17 catches on 29 targets for 158 yards and a touchdown, which equates to an 85.1 passer rating. In Denver and Seattle, he gave up only eight catches on 15 targets for 84 yards. Neal also forced a fumble in each of those contests.
Given how well the ex-Florida Gator has played of late, what's the next step for him?
"Ball-hawking," Quinn said. "He's such a physical guy, so now can you force some fumbles or can you get the ball off of guys because the man-to-man matchups and the tackling that he's had, it's exactly like we'd hoped it would be. And then the next step as a ball player is having that same physicality and then, oh by the way, trying to get the ball out as well."
Neal could have many opportunities to take that step on Sunday. In addition to future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, the Chargers have a rookie tight end in Hunter Henry who has tallied 19 receptions for 386 yards and three touchdowns this year.
Containing that TE duo over the middle of the field and in the red zone will be key for Atlanta's defense, and Neal should play a big part in that effort.