Falcons safety Keanu Neal is low-key off the field.
On the field, he’s a bone-rattling hitter who must help lead a turnaround over the second half of the season, which starts Sunday when the Falcons (4-4) host the Cowboys (5-3) at 4:25 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Leadership has no name, no age and no face,” Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manual said. “I think a lot of people do it in a lot of ways. You have the Ray Lewises that we love of the world that step in. You have the Ed Reeds, who barely say a few words.”
Neal is more in the middle.
“I think he’s rolling into that, understanding that behind the scenes he has to do the small things in order to show his leadership,” Manuel said. “Because he does it on the field. He understands that it’s the small things that make teams great. I think he’s stepping to that role.”
Neal, who was selected 16th overall in the 2015 draft out of Florida, is getting more comfortable as he is taking on an expand role on the team.
“I’m started to speak more,” Neal said. “I’m trying to continue to grow that part of my game by being more vocal whether if its communicating on the field or talking off the field. I’m just continuing to grow as a player.”
The coaches are noticing as Neal steps forward on the team.
“Keanu has such a serious approach about his game that he’s really one of those guys that’s always trying to find an area to improve,” Quinn said. “We talk about the one percent. Can this part of our game really improve? That could be the technique, it could be the way I play the scheme. For him, one of the areas he was really trying to dial in on was the communication piece.”
Neal has been leaning on free safety Ricardo Allen during his development.
“I know he admires (Ricardo Allen and) the amount of studying that he does,” Neal said. “He’s able to share some of that information across (the defense). The physical part of his game is really intact in terms of owning his fit, making his hits.”
Neal has been working on his coverage skills, too.
“He’s improved as a man-to-man cover player, and we will feature those guys in that way,” Quinn said. “After last year as a rookie, he was one of the players elected as a chief, so you can imagine the impact he made on his teammates very early on for a guy who’s just 21.”
Neal ranks second on the team with 59 tackles and he has two forced fumbles.
“I was very excited that we created some takeaways,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I thought Keanu specifically was as physical as could be (against Carolina). I think in 22 regular-season games, he has something like seven forced fumbles. He is a guy that brings it.”
Neal knows the Falcons’ run defense must improve. The Falcons gave up a season-high 201 yards rushing against Carolina. Even though, Ezekiel Elliott is not slated to play Sunday, the Falcons are still focusing on stopping the run.
“It’s gets kind frustrating when you see stuff that you kind of missed,” Neal said. “That’s football. You have to learn from it. You have to have tough skin. You have to accept the coaching and move forward.”
The Falcons know they must make a move on Carolina (6-3) and New Orleans (6-2) in the NFC South. They also need a win over Dallas to gain the head-to-head playoff tiebreaker.
“We don’t worry about (the standings),” Neal insisted. “We have to worry about what we’ve got each week, that’s Dallas and that’s what we are focusing on.”
Quinn values turnovers, the kind Neal creates when he lays out a ballcarrier and separates them from the ball.
“(Quinn) always talks about takeaways,” Neal said. “That’s one that that we are always happy about as a defense. Getting the ball is important. Continuing to harp on that, stress that, is good for us.”
The Falcons hope to contain Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott better than they did Carolina’s Cam Newton, who rushed for 86 yards in the 20-17 loss last week.
“He’s a great player,” Neal said. “He’s a quarterback who can move. He’s mobile and he can throw the balls. I think he’s a great player. I look forward to going against him.”
Neal believes he has more good football left in him this season.
“There is always room to improve,” he said. “I’m continuing to stay true to the process and continuing to grow as a player.”