The Steelers signed former Tampa Bay safety Keanu Neal last week to fill the void created by the departure of Terrell Edmunds.
Edmunds was a versatile player who improved steadily throughout his five seasons in Pittsburgh. In 2022, he had perhaps his best campaign playing predominantly as a box safety and occasional half-field defender. Edmunds provided sound coverage and reliable tackling, leaving many Steelers fans upset when he signed with Philadelphia.
Enter Neal, who like Edmunds is a former 1st Round pick. Neal was taken by Atlanta with the 17th overall selection of the 2016 draft. He’s recorded three seasons of 100 tackles or more, and also missed nearly two full seasons due to various injuries. Neal was a sub-package player in Dallas and Tampa Bay the past two years, where he was used predominantly as a box safety and dime linebacker.
Neal is a thumper who excels against the run. But he lacks Edmunds’ versatility and is unlikely to be used much in deep coverage. For this reason, fans may lament the fact he is not Edmunds. But, given Neal’s strengths, and the scheme the Steelers are likely to play, they won’t need him to be.
Last season, in Tampa, Neal played in a system run by Todd Bowles, whose philosophy was similar to Terrell Austin’s. Bowles sought to create adversity for opposing offenses by disguising blitzes and coverages and forcing quarterbacks to navigate the deception. He used a ton of sub-packages, employing them liberally regardless of down, distance or situation. Bowles was as likely to run his dime package on 1st down as he was on 3rd-and-long. He got speed on to the field as much as possible and used it to create havoc.
Take this play against Carolina. Tampa is in a pre-snap Cover-3 look with the corners backed off and seemingly responsible for the deep outside thirds. A free safety is fifteen yards off the ball manning the deep middle. And Neal, the strong safety, is rolled down at the linebacker level over the tight end to the right of the offensive formation:
At the snap, though, the Bucs rotate into a Tampa-2 look. The boundary corner sits on the hitch from the motion man while the field corner and safety rotate to deep halves. The Will linebacker runs the seam as the high hole/middle-third player. And Neal, who looked as though he’d be in coverage against the tight end, comes barreling in on the blitz, where he levels the quarterback with a solid hit just as he releases his throw:
From this angle, you can see how well Neal (22) times the blitz and how quickly he gets to the quarterback. He doesn’t possess the longer speed Edmunds does. But he is explosive, with a good burst to the ball, and he packs a wallop once he arrives:
Here’s Neal coming on the blitz again to take down Cleveland’s Jacoby Brissett. The Bucs run a nice interior twist stunt to free up Neal, who comes unblocked through the B-gap and bends nicely to get home:
Tampa’s scheme should look familiar to Steelers fans. Pittsburgh frequently runs these types of disguises and pressures. Last season, Edmunds was often the box safety tasked with covering tight ends and running backs, and occasionally blitzing. Here he is, in the middle of the screen at linebacker level, covering the back out as the Steelers bring a five-man pressure that forces an interception against Joe Burrow and the Bengals:
Neal should be able to handle this role capably. He is adequate when covering from the second level, especially when he has some space with which to work. Here, lined up just off the hash at the 22-yard line, he mans-up Baltimore’s Mark Andrews on an in-route. Neal closes quickly, wraps up well and drops Andrews on contact:
On this one, he does a textbook job of attacking the near arm of the receiver just as the ball arrives. Neal’s physicality is complimented by being fundamentally sound in most aspects of his game:
He did struggle, though, when asked to play press against bigger receivers. This is a skill Edmunds improved upon as his career developed. Neal is not there yet.
Watch below as San Francisco motions out of a wing set to get their tight end matched one-on-one against Neal with space to the boundary. Neal gets caught peeking at play-action, then has to turn his back and run to recover. The DPI in this situation is practically inevitable:
On this next one, Neal again covers Andrews. He gets beaten because he gives up first contact and allows Andrews to get a hand into his chest. This knocks Neal out of position, where he again has to shift into recovery mode:
On this one, Neal fails to turn up-field with the tight end as he converts his flat route into a wheel. Neal, who is the defender dropping to the right flat, commits the cardinal sin of locking his eyes on the quarterback and failing to keep track of the receiver. In this instance, it’s a six-point mistake:
Neal is better on this next rep. Lined up on the far left of the screen, he fights through clutter to nicely defend a crossing route from the flexed tight end:
The problem for Neal in these situations is he’s not a quick-twitch guy. His reaction time is just ok, as is his straight-line speed. Pittsburgh would be wise to play Neal at linebacker depth rather than walk him down to the line of scrimmage, like Tampa often did. Giving Neal space to process what’s happening before he has to react puts him in the best position to succeed.
Tampa also used Neal as a deep safety at times, in both one-high and two-high situations. It’s no surprise he was best coming from the sky as a run defender, where his sure tackling was a deterrent to ball-carriers ripping off chunk plays:
In coverage, he often played with a big cushion, presumably because he was concerned about getting beaten deep.
In the clip below, Neal is the safety in motion. He’s 15 yards from the line of scrimmage at the snap, then retreats to a depth of 25 yards as the quarterback sets his feet. This is too deep for a safety who trusts his own speed. On the other hand, it’s perfect if you don’t want to allow anyone behind you. Neal eventually breaks on the corner route from the outside receiver. Ideally, you’d like to see him a little tighter as the throw arrives. But with help underneath, he’s not in a bad spot:
When Neal does get properly positioned, he brings the hammer. Watch here as he separates New Orleans’ Taysom Hill from the football with a perfectly timed hit on a post route. This sort of physicality will quickly endear him to fans in Pittsburgh:
Neal reminds me a little of Mike Mitchell, who was another physical safety who had his ups and downs in coverage. Fortunately, Neal has Damontae Kazee and Minkah Fitzpatrick to absorb the lion’s share of the reps on the back end. This should allow him to be used predominantly as a sub-package box defender and the big nickel in Pittsburgh’s three-safety package. That package was very successful late last season when the Steelers had Edmunds, Kazee and Fitzpatrick together. It let Austin disguise his blitzes, coverages and run fits and scramble his personnel creatively.
Here’s the package below, with Kazee and Fitzpatrick circled as the two-high safeties and Edmunds in the box against the short-side slot receiver:
From this look, the Steelers played Cover-1 Robber, with the underneath defenders locking on in man coverage, Kazee rotating from the left hash to centerfield, and Fitzpatrick coming down from the right hash to rob the middle. The rotation fooled Burrow, who held the ball too long and took a sack.
Like Bowles, Austin wants to win early downs to put offenses in long-yardage situations where he can get aggressive. Neal will be an asset as a box defender in this regard. If he can hold up in coverage, Pittsburgh could get even more creative with the three-safety package than they were last season. That’s an important “if,” and one the Steelers won’t have an answer to until the rubber hits the road. While there is optimism Neal can man this role, they would be wise to develop a Plan B just in case.
My suspicion, though, is Neal will fit well here. He’s not Edmunds, but Pittsburgh won’t need him to be. Physicality has been a theme for the Steelers throughout free agency. They weren’t exactly soft last season, but they lacked a Vince Williams/Ryan Clark-style hammer who could set a physical tone. To remedy that, they’ve added linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, both of whom bring a nasty demeanor and relish contact. And now Neal, who also fits that mold. Neal isn’t as well-rounded as Edmunds. But the physicality and attitude he brings could be exactly what Pittsburgh is looking for.