The Falcons lost more than one game to the Eagles on Thursday night. Atlanta also lost Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal for the season with a torn ACL.
The NFC South might be the most competitive division in the NFL season this year. As such, any injury to a key player has the potential to cost a team the chance to make the playoffs. Losing Keanu Neal for the season could be enough to ground the Atlanta Falcons’ chances of making the postseason.
Immediately after Atlanta’s disappointing loss to the Eagles, coach Dan Quinn believed the team had dodged any serious injuries. He told NFL.com that Neal was due to get an MRI, but the team viewed it as a precautionary measure. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the final diagnosis was much more severe. The team formally announced today that Neal will miss the remainder of the 2018 season with a torn ACL.
Neal isn’t the biggest name on the Falcons roster, but he’s a big part of Quinn’s defense. His playmaking ability at safety gives his coaching staff the ability to dial up a variety of blitzes to overcome the unit’s lack of a Pro Bowl pass rusher. His absence will likely force the Falcons’ defense to either play a much more conservative system.
Jordan Richards will get a chance to fill Neal’s shoes, but they can’t trust him to play against Pro Bowl receivers or tight ends one-on-one down the field. The former Patriot has some talent, but he’s been a backup during his relatively brief NFL career. Expecting him to step into Neal’s shoes would be a massive gamble.
Specifically, losing Neal is going to hurt Atlanta’s chances of stopping the Saints and Panthers when they match up with them in the regular season. Drew Brees will certainly target Neal’s replacement with his cadre of pass catchers. The Panthers will feel great about Greg Olsen’s ability to attack the Falcons down the seam.
It’s fair to wonder if the Falcons front office might try to swing a trade to upgrade their options at the position. Don’t expect them to suddenly jump into the fray for Earl Thomas, but swinging a modest trade for a quality starter could help soften the blow of Neal’s absence. They aren’t going to find a player of equal value at this point, but they could potentially acquire an upgrade over Richards.
Losing Neal doesn’t completely eliminate Atlanta’s chances of making the playoffs, but it does immediately put them a spot or two behind the Saints and Panthers in the NFL South. The Falcons can’t afford any more injuries on defense if they want to remain relevant in the division.