The Falcons decided rookie safety Keanu Neal would have the main responsibility in pass coverage against Greg Olsen, Carolina’s superlative tight end. Not surprisingly, the Panthers decided that was a matchup they should test.
All things considered, Neal earned a passing grade for the tough assignment. Olsen beat Neal for a touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter but Neal held Olsen in check over the first three periods.
“I think I stuck with him pretty well,” Neal said.
Olsen had no catches on four targets through three quarters before totaling six receptions (on nine targets) for 76 yards and a touchdown as the Panthers were in comeback mode in the fourth.
“I was covering him pretty much all day,” Neal said. “He’s an amazing player, great tight end. So going against him was a challenge but I love challenges. He got me a few times but that’s part of the game.”
Neal made his second start since returning from a knee injury that required surgery. He had four tackles and one pass defended against the Saints in his pro debut and totaled nine tackles against the Panthers.
The Falcons are using Neal in a hybrid safety role where he is used close to the line of scrimmage in run support while also covering wide receivers and tight ends. With Olsen Neal drew one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league, a fluid athlete at 6-6 and 250 pounds.
Olsen showed his craftiness on his 14-yard TD catch from Derek Anderson, who had replaced injured starter Cam Newton.
Operating from the left slot, Olsen got by Neal by twice breaking outside and then inside before using his size to make a twisting, one-handed catch in the back of the end zone. Olsen made a catch over Neal on the successful two-point conversion that cut the lead to 34-26 with 3:58 to play.
Neal said the game was a lesson in how opponents will test his coverage skills.
“Being able to decipher what they are trying to do to me,” Neal said. “Understanding that he is a Pro Bowl tight end. He knows how to maneuver and make you think certain things. So understanding that and getting used to tight ends who do that, I think that will help me in the long run.”