Film Room: Keanu Neal Adds Versatility, Experience To Steelers’ Secondary

After losing one key, versatile defensive piece that can play two-high, in the slot and in the box from the safety position in veteran Terrell Edmunds, the Pittsburgh Steelers quickly pivoted and plugged that hole Thursday night, inking veteran Keanu Neal to a two-year deal, giving the Steelers that versatile piece defensively that can move all around and brings serious physicality to the position that the Steelers haven’t had in quite some time.

A former first round pick in 2016, Neal has had an up and down career since coming out of Florida. Neal spent five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, then one year each with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 27 years old, he still has the high-end pedigree and still conducts himself like the real-life version of John Wick — the wise old hitman that still gets the job done, even if it isn’t how it’s drawn up.

Without Edmunds, the Steelers needed a third safety to pair with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee that can play in the slot and handle himself reasonably well in two-high looks while also being an impact blitzer and run defender overall. While he’s not a 1-to-1 replacement for the younger Edmunds, getting a player of Neal’s experience and overall caliber this late in free agency as the third safety is a rather solid get for GM Omar Khan, assistant GM Andy Weidl and the Steelers.

So, what exactly are the Steelers getting with Neal in free agency? Glad you asked. Let’s dive into the tape and take look.

Run Defense

In recent seasons Neal has taken on a larger role in the box, serving as that extra run defender more often than not. Some of that is due to his deteriorating skills in coverage, but a lot of it is due to his tackling abilities and comfort playing downhill with a reckless abandon, setting the physical tone for every defense he’s on.

In his career, Neal has played 4,242 career snaps with 2,174 of those coming in the box, according to Pro Football Focus. Of those 2,174 snaps in the box, a whopping 1,195 of those snaps have come in the last three seasons. He’s still a strong safety overall, but he’s much more comfortable playing downhill, moving forward rather than attempting to turn and run in coverage.

That plays directly into his overall success in the box.


He has good, patient eyes overall when in the box, especially when playing the run. He’s very rarely going to get fooled and is able to consistently sift through the trash and find the football, and when he hits you, you’re going down. Good rep here against the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium in Week 6, laying the wood to Najee Harris in traffic and getting him to the turf for a short gain.

Even when not lined up in the box, he’s going to hunt downhill to assist against the run.


Neal closes a ton of ground here and tracks Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon well off the snap in Week 15. He has such a nose for the football and loves contact. He doesn’t think twice coming downhill and wants to be that guy to make the tackle. He really wants an opponent to feel him at contact, too.

He’s going to try and set the tone every single time he hits someone. The Steelers really need that in the secondary moving forward.


Tampa Bay did a nice job of using Neal as a blitzer at times, too, letting him wreak havoc in the backfield, especially when teams tried to run at him.

Very solid rep here against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13 last season. Good athleticism to dip under the block and make the play on the big, physical Taysom Hill behind the line of scrimmage for the run stop.

Again, it’s not going to be pretty all the time against the run, but Neal finds a way to make plays as a run defender overall.

I really like the way Neal closes ground. Sometimes he doesn’t take the best of angles, but he really has a knack for finding the football in traffic and getting the ball carrier on the ground. For his career, Neal has missed 58 tackles, good for just an 11.5% missed tackles rate.

That tracks on film.

While with Dallas in 2021, the Cowboys tried to make him an off-ball linebacker exclusively. It largely backfired.

He had some strong reps in the box as a true off-ball linebacker, but too often he was swallowed up by blockers between the tackles and really had some ugly reps, like this one against the Washington Commanders late in the 2021 season.

Pass Coverage

Neal’s skillset in coverage was never a strong suit of his coming out of college.

In fact, his work in coverage was a concern coming out of Florida.

That largely tracked in the NFL and has really shown up the last three seasons, which has led to more work in the box to take him out of situations where he struggles.

Still, he can play two-high and is comfortable in that look.


Good drive on the out route here against the Saints. It’s not a good throw from Andy Dalton overall, but it’s still a good drive to the boundary from Neal to disrupt the throw overall.

He’s so much better working downhill moving forward overall, but he has had flashes in the last two years of being able to flip those hips open, change direction and still make plays as the deep safety.

Check out this rep against the Saints last to season the win, thanks to a big hit on Taysom Hill at the catch point.


That’s a really nice flash of fluidity there to open his hips and change direction to close in on Hill for the hit to dislodge the football.

He’s not a guy that’s going to make a ton of plays on the football in coverage, but he does have good instincts overall and reads quarterbacks well. He had a great play against the Bengals last season that led directly to a turnover, simply by getting his hands up in the passing lane against Joe Burrow.


That said, there’s a lot of bad in coverage on tape from him.

He can get lost in zone coverage and really doesn’t have a good feel for where players are around him.


When he’s allowed to keep things in front of him, trigger downhill and let his physical tools play, he’s a heat seeking missile in the middle of the field. Earlier in his career, teams feared going across the middle against him due to the damage he inflicted on receivers.

That’s not quite the case anymore, but that physical, punishing defender is still in there.


Overall, the Steelers did well to land a 27-year-old safety in Neal. He has a lot of mileage on his body and missed a number of games in his career due to his play style, but in a three-safety set where he’s able to play to his strengths in the box attacking downhill and keeping everything in front of him, he can be a solid chess piece for the Steelers at a very affordable cost.

He’s not going to be a game-changing piece at this point in his career, but he’s a very solid depth option overall and a significant upgrade for the Steelers at the third safety behind Fitzpatrick and Kazee after the loss of Edmunds and gives the Steelers even more flexibility at the position entering the 2023 NFL Draft.

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