FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Dan Quinn paused for a second, but the Atlanta Falcons coach eventually came up with a ringing endorsement when asked which player has been his best run defender.
"I would probably say right now -- we play him a lot down in the box -- but I'd say Keanu Neal is very active in the tackles," Quinn said of his rookie first-round draft pick. "We put him down in that spot where he's down close to the line of scrimmage intentionally, where we can try to put him toward where some of the action is. So it's not a surprise that that position's getting a lot of tackles."
Neal, the starting strong safety, leads the Falcons with 87 combined tackles, including 59 solo. His hard-hitting style has been evident from Day 1.
"He's been somebody that's bringing the right intent; trying to hit through the target, not just at the target," Quinn continued. "I think that's a small thing that we don't talk about a lot. That's where the real contact happens: Not just hitting the guy, but trying to hit through him. He has a real awareness of where the strike zone is and tries to use that technique, when appropriate."
Neal appreciated hearing the praise from his coach.
"That's cool stuff," Neal said. "That's awesome to get that recognition from Coach as being that because I care about it. I really strive for being that physical player, that physical presence in this defense."
In reflecting on the first 13 games, Neal said one play in particular represents the type of physicality and technique he hopes to display with every stop. It was a run by Dexter McCluster of the San Diego Chargers, where Neal shot through the gap and knocked McCluster back for a 1-yard loss. He reaction time was on point as he read exactly where the play was headed. Then he delivered the punishing blow at full force.
"It definitely described my style of play," Neal said.
The Falcons will need those type of plays from Neal come Sunday against a San Francisco 49ers team capable of running the ball -- if nothing else -- behind Carlos Hyde and dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
"It's going to take a group effort," Neal said. "It's going to take more than just me and my physical presence. It's going to take whole defense, our communication, our chemistry."