RENTON, Wash. – Seeking redemption after losing both of their regular season matchups against the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks will have a key member of their defense back in action at the perfect time for Saturday’s wild card rematch at Levis Stadium.
Returning to practice in limited fashion earlier this week after missing the previous three games with a knee injury, veteran safety Ryan Neal didn’t receive an injury designation on Seattle’s final report. Making great progress in the past 10 days, coach Pete Carroll confirmed he would be ready to roll heading into the postseason following Thursday’s final practice session.
“He’s back and ready to go,” Carroll told reporters. “He’s been a real active part of what we do and a great spirit in what we do and I’m really happy that he’ll get back.”
Per Carroll, assuming Neal doesn’t have any setbacks leading up to Saturday, the Seahawks will deploy a “nice rotation” to keep him fresh after nearly a month-long layoff. Former first-round pick Johnathan Abram started the previous two wins against the Jets and Rams and should see snaps at strong safety against the 49ers, while Teez Tabor will continue to factor in as a sub-package defender in dime packages.
Enjoying a career year before being shut down following Seattle’s last matchup with San Francisco in Week 15, Neal’s return couldn’t be a more welcome development for Carroll’s defense.
Emerging as a star in his own right filling an injured Jamal Adams’ massive shoes all season long, Neal currently sits as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded safety (85.9) in the NFL with at least 580 defensive snaps. Thriving in all facets since replacing a benched Josh Jones in Week 4, he’s produced 66 tackles, an interception, four tackles for loss, and a sack with just 10 starts under his belt.
Compared to the rest of the safeties in the league, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Neal has been especially good in coverage, allowing a league-low 7.5 yards per reception and tied for first place with six pass breakups. Receiving an elite 85.7 coverage grade, quarterbacks have posted a 77.0 passer rating against him, which ranks 15th at the position out of 69 qualified players.
While Seattle has struggled mightily defending the run most of this season, Neal has been a rare bright spot in that regard as well. Despite only playing 713 defensive snaps, Pro Football Focus credited him for 25 “stops” constituted as failed plays for the opposing offense, tied for 15th among safeties. He’s also forced two fumbles, including a critical turnover punching the ball out of quarterback Kyler Murray’s hands on a scramble in a Week 9 win over Arizona.
Squaring off against a talented 49ers offense featuring dynamic play makers Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, and George Kittle, the Seahawks will be delighted to see Neal back in the lineup for a number of reasons.
Historically, Neal has played some of his best football against San Francisco. Playing at less than 100 percent in Week 15, he broke up a first down pass intended for Kittle on a deep corner route, jarring the ball away from the tight end at the last minute with excellent technique. He also recorded six tackles, stuffing McCaffrey after a third down catch just short of the line of scrimmage to force a punt on the 49ers first drive of the game.
Even when Adams was healthy last season, Neal still made an impact for the Seahawks in a Week 4 road win at Levis Stadium. Playing 26 snaps in a rotational nickel back role, he produced four tackles, including two third down stops that led to a missed field goal and a punt, as well as a third down pass breakup while covering Kittle.
Beyond his on-field contributions, as pointed out by Carroll, Neal has grown into a quality leader in the locker room and plays with infectious energy and passion for the game that rubs off positively on his teammates. Flying all over the field making plays, his return should buoy a unit that has dealt with several injuries towards the tale end of the season.
“He’s been really frustrated about not playing, but he can only do what he can do,” Carroll commented. “He wasn’t quite ready last week, but he had made some real progress before the game and that helped him jumping into this week. He sounds like he’s been frustrated though. He’s a high energy guy and wants to be a part of the team as much as anybody we got, and so he’s really grateful that he gets a chance to probably play in this game.”
After grinding his way through rehab to play in the postseason, Seattle will need another strong performance from Neal to have any shot at knocking San Francisco out of the playoffs early. Even if he isn’t able to play every snap in soggy, windy weather conditions, his presence alone should provide a much-needed boost on defense and if he comes through with a few game-changing plays, his team will have a much better chance of advancing past Saturday.
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