PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers defender Keanu Neal is very comfortable playing in the box. In fact, that might be the place where he’s best suited to helping the team’s defense since signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent this offseason.
But that doesn’t mean he wants to be put into a box.
The Steelers list Neal, a 6-foot, 211-pound 27-year-old former first-round draft pick, as a safety. But he says he’s more than that, and he has the bona fides to back it up.
In 2021, the Dallas Cowboys officially moved Neal from safety to weak-side linebacker in their 4-3 scheme. That positional experiment lasted just one year, as Neal was once again listed as a safety by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2022.
But regardless of what you call him, Neal can and has filled a lot of defensive roles. According to positional tracking by Pro Football Focus, Neal has 2,174 career snaps as an in-the-box safety or inside linebacker, 932 as a free safety, 768 as a slot defender, 196 as an outside linebacker and 171 as a cornerback.
“It’s really hard to put yourself in a box, and I wouldn’t put myself in a box saying that I’m a linebacker or I’m a safety,” Neal said. “Because I can do multiple things. I can go down and play as a ‘backer role, but I can also play in the safety role. I wouldn’t really give myself a position.”
The Steelers defense has been trending in the direction of more and more specialization over the last few years. For a while, the Steelers have had a Dime linebacker that has sometimes differed from the players that man that spot on first and second down. They have also split their Nickel cornerback position in half, with some players (Mike Hilton, Art Maulet) playing mostly on run downs and others (Cam Sutton) playing mostly on pass downs.
“Positions that we didn’t necessarily identify as positions years ago have very specific roles,” head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this offseason. “I think the nickel, the interior corner is a position in today’s game. The dime linebacker or the passing-situations linebacker, for example, is a really specific position in today’s game. There are interior rushers. Those guys oftentimes play on the edge on run downs. It’s a highly specialized game today.”
The necessity of playing against widely varied offensive schemes has created that specialization. The Steelers will face a spread passing scheme in the Cincinnati Bengals, a quarterback run-heavy squad like the Baltimore Ravens and a traditional run and play-action offense from the Seattle Seahawks in consecutive weeks to close the 2023 season.
It’s hard to find one guy that can cover Tyler Boyd, take on a fullback in the run game and keep contain against Lamar Jackson. That’s why the Steelers and other NFL defenses have moved to more specialization.
This offseason, Neal’s arrival signals the further specialization of a position. Terrell Edmunds had been an every-down player for the Steelers since he was the team’s first-round draft pick back in 2018.
With Edmunds’ departure, though, the team is poised to fill slot with two players. Damontae Kazee is more like a traditional Steelers free safety, and can play Cover 2 and other two-high safety alignments, where Edmunds was somewhat out of place in that much space. When the Steelers want to drop their strong safety into the box, Neal can be that kind of player.
But it’s also important that the Steelers don’t become so specialized that they give away their alignment and intentions by what player is on the field. A player like Maulet, that can only do a good job of filling one of those highly specific roles, is only so useful, because it allows the offense to game plan for exactly where he’ll be lining up.
A player like Minkah Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, can do just about any job in the secondary.
“It’s kind of like chess,” Neal said. “see that as a very important piece, having guys that can move around an do different things. I feel like it’s very important. We’re definitely growing in that aspect, doing different things, disguise, movement, having guys in different places, that’s definitely going to mess up the QB on opposing teams.”
Neal’s ability to be either a linebacker, or a box safety, or a half-field safety means that him stepping off the sideline doesn’t tell the offense much about what the Steelers defense intends to do on that particular snap.
“With every defense, there’s plays on offense that they can exploit it,” Neal said. “Being great at what you’re great at and then having different things that you can play to change it up is always going to be key.”
The Steelers can even take things beyond that. They will line up like they’re going to play in a certain alignment, say with Neal over the quarterback looking like a Dime linebacker and Fitzpatrick playing straight behind him like a center-field safety. Then at the snap, they can sprint to opposite hash marks and play Cover 2, the opposite of the quarterback’s pre-snap read.
Every defense tries to disguise its coverages, but it’s most effective when there are players like Fitzpatrick and Neal that can be seen as realistic options to play multiple difference parts.
“That’s the goal is to continue build our disguise package and get a feel for that,” Neal said. “I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job of that right now. We’re still growing, still learning, still building that piece. We have a long way to go, but we’re stacking the right direction.”
The Steelers defense led the NFL in interceptions in 2022, with three players — Fitzpatrick, Sutton and Levi Wallace — all setting career highs at the same time. Part of that is obviously the skill of those defenders, but it’s also the way the Steelers are taking additional steps to mask coverage and put defenders in places where the quarterback isn’t expecting them.
The team also has a feared pass rush, so quarterbacks aren’t expecting to have a lot of time in the pocket. Forcing additional mental processing in that already-stressed time period.
“Our front is nasty,” Neal said. “So he already knows he doesn’t have much time. So if we can just do that little bit to slow him down, that’s a win for us.”
The presence of a player like Fitzpatrick — who might go off the defense’s script, let alone what the offense might be expecting from him — makes that part of the game even tougher on the opposing quarterbacks. It could also make things tough on a new safety playing along side him. That’s why Neal has been at the Steelers OTAs throughout, trying to get a feel for his new partner.
“It’s been good working with him, man,” Neal said. “It’s building chemistry and getting to know all the guys, but especially him, getting a feel for how he plays, the things that he’s doing within the play, playing off of that and everything. … It’s been awesome.”