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Why Keanu Neal could be a significant piece to the Steelers’ defense

The former first-round pick could play a major role in the team’s success.

NFL: NOV 27 Buccaneers at Browns Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When watching the Steelers’ defense in 2022, it was impossible not to notice the dominance of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cam Heyward; the breakout of Alex Highsmith; and T.J. Watt’s return overlapping with better figures overall. But, an unheralded storyline also emerged: the versatility of Terrell Edmunds.

In his fifth season in Pittsburgh, Edmunds truly blossomed last year, in part because of how he was used by Teryl Austin and the team’s coaching staff. According to PFF, across 886 snaps last year, Edmunds played no more than 36.3% at any one position, whether free safety, in the slot or even at cornerback. Edmunds particularly shined playing down low in the box, leveraging his strong tackling and good instincts to make plays in the run game.

Whether one was a fan of Edmunds — a contested former first-round selection — or not, it was tough to dispute his impact on the Steelers’ defense. From augmenting a subpar linebacker unit to complementing Fitzpatrick in the back end, his value was evident, even if not a household name.

But, Edmunds playing his entire career in the Steel City was not to be. The safety signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving a hole in Pittsburgh’s D — not just beside Fitzpatrick at strong safety, but also a void regarding a player who can nearly do it all.

This offseason, general manager Omar Khan ensured that Fitzpatrick would not (entirely) be a one-man wrecking crew by retaining Damontae Kazee, who flashed his coverage ability by accumulating two interceptions in only nine games. Kazee appears to be the frontrunner to start alongside Fitzpatrick in 2023, but he’s played as a free safety almost the entirety of his now seven-year career. For context, 77.7% of his snaps with the Falcons, Cowboys and Steelers have come at free safety, with only 10.5% in the box.

That’s where his former Atlanta and Dallas teammate enters the fray.

On March 30, Keanu Neal inked a two-year, $4.25 million deal with the Steelers. The 2016 first-round pick has bounced around in his stint in the NFL, with Pittsburgh being his fourth team in just eight seasons.

The move may not have opened eyes, and for good reason. The soon-to-be 28-year-old has played in just 80 games in seven years, including recovering from a torn ACL and Achilles in consecutive seasons. Even when on the field, Neal has not entirely matched his first-round hype, amassing only three career interceptions and being named to the Pro Bowl just once.

However, Neal has made his mark on defenses due to his skillset playing more as a linebacker in the box. Since he debuted in 2016, Neal is one of eight safeties to post three or more seasons with 100+ tackles, joining names like Budda Baker, Derwin James and Jessie Bates III. Additionally, 50.7% of Neal’s professional snaps have come in the box, compared to only 22.3% at free safety and 18.2% in the slot.

It’s likely no coincidence that three different organizations — albeit the same scheme for five of his seven seasons playing under Dan Quinn — have used Neal as more of a run-fitting player than in pure coverage scenarios. When healthy, Neal operates as a dimebacker of sorts, tasked with making stops and tackles from sideline to sideline.

That sentiment of acting as a third linebacker is particularly appealing to the Steelers, who lack a proven third ILB behind Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb, especially with news that Mark Robinson is not yet expected to start. Linebacker coverage will also be paramount, with neither Holcomb nor Roberts excelling in that department, and teams regularly exploiting Devin Bush/Myles Jack/Robert Spillane on routes over the middle of the field in 2022.

If Neal’s role seems to mirror what Pittsburgh asked of Edmunds, that’s probably by design. Both players are of similar sizes — Edmunds at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, while Neal is 6-foot, 211 pounds — and each played at least 36% of their 2022 snaps in the box. At the same time, both can play almost anywhere, whether being walked up at the line of scrimmage in a mug look, matching tight ends across the field or even as a safety 10+ yards deep.

When the Steelers signed Neal, the move may have flown under the radar; after all, names like Patrick Peterson, Isaac Seumalo and Allen Robinson have garnered much more attention as newcomers to Pittsburgh. Although Neal has been a bit of a journeyman throughout his NFL career, his skillset can easily be maximized by Austin and Mike Tomlin — one that can effectively replace Edmunds’ versatility, and which will remain integral to the team’s defensive cohesion in 2023.