The Dallas Cowboys have a plan to improve their defense in 2021. That after the team allowed a franchise-high 473 points to be scored against them last season. They also had the second-worst rushing defense in the NFL allowing an average of 158.8 yards on the ground per game.
In an effort to avoid a repeat performance, the Cowboys made several changes to their defense this offseason. The main one being the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after a single season and the hiring of former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as his replacement.
The Cowboys also used eight of their 11 draft selections on the defensive side of the ball, including their first eight picks. That resulted in the addition of rookies like linebackers Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, defensive linemen Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston, plus cornerbacks Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright.
But the most immediate impactful additions may come from free agency. Quinn was able to retain two key defensive pieces from his former team, the Falcons, and added them to the roster in Dallas. Those veteran safeties being Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee.
Of the two, Neal is the more notable addition. That’s due to him being a first-round selection by Atlanta back in 2016, earning his first-and-only Pro Bowl nod in 2017, and recording back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons to kick off his pro career.
Unfortunately, injuries have plagued Neal recently, forcing him to miss a whopping 29 games over the past three regular seasons. But the 25-year old is coming off a strong bounce-back performance where he played in 15 games and recorded 100 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three QB hits, and an interception in 2020.
And while Neal would have likely become the Cowboys’ instant starter at strong safety, Quinn has decided to shift the versatile defender to linebacker. That’s despite the presence of two Pro Bowlers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith already at the position and the additions of Parsons and Cox via the draft.
Here’s how Rob Phillips of DallasCowboys.com recently responded to a mailbag question about Neal possibly being more valuable for the Cowboys as a safety rather than a linebacker.
"“Don’t forget another ex-Falcon who played for Quinn, Damontae Kazee, was brought in to be more of a cover safety. Kazee and Donovan Wilson could be a solid combo. With Neal at linebacker, seems like Quinn is looking to add speed to the position and a sure tackler who presumably can help shore things up against the run.”"
At 6-foot-1, 217-pounds, Neal says he’s currently being used as a WILL linebacker in the base defense and dime in the nickel. He’s also someone that Quinn can trust to not only be a coach on the field but says is someone who brings speed along with physicality to the position.
Perhaps Neal will be the key in improving the Cowboys’ run defense in 2021 as well. During his lone Pro Bowl season in 2017, Pro Football Focus gave Keanu an overall grade of 84.9 in run defense, the seventh-highest grade at his position that year.
Being able to quickly diagnose the play, make the proper read, and quickly react is something this Dallas Cowboys’ defense struggled with under Mike Nolan last year. Keanu Neal is Dan Quinn’s guy and the shorthand between them should only help the defense in Dallas get up to speed quickly as they attempt to learn yet another defensive scheme.