Building upon his successful 2020 performances where he started four games after an injury to Jamal Adams, strong safety Ryan Neal has continued his solid play into 2021. This season, the Seahawks have devised a dime-back/bandit-back role for Neal—signed to an exclusive-rights free agent tender this past June. This is where the 2018 undrafted free agent, former NFL cornerback has impressed. It’s no surprise, given Seattle’s defensive struggles, that an especially relevant question has emerged: why isn’t the 25-year old playing more football?
Versus the 49ers in Week 4, Neal played a lot of ‘ball and impressed head coach Pete Carroll.
“I thought [Ken Norton Jr.'s] decision to go with Ryan Neal was a big decision, you know, and we had done that a couple of years back, I think, and Ryan had a fantastic football game, in complement to the rest of the guys,” Carroll told Mike Salk of 710 ESPN Seattle following the team's 28-21 win over San Francisco. “We’re gonna stay with him and keep him active and keep him part of it, because he really was a good football player.”
Neal became a valuable passing down weapon and even survived versus unexpected runs (the fear with running dime), as I highlighted in this tape thread studying his play:
Carroll’s reference to “done that a couple of years back” was the first indicator of Neal’s 2021 role in the defense, that it will be sub-package only. It harked back to the days of Akeem King, a 2018 season where the Seahawks used the former cornerback as a tight end killer and match-weapon in dime and seven defensive back packages, specifically built for matchups with the Vikings and Chiefs.
Indeed, versus the Rams, Neal’s play-time was reduced to a measly nine percent of the defensive snaps. Part of that was the Los Angeles’ offensive personnel being less threatening at tight end than San Francisco. George Kittle was highly relevant to Seattle’s decision to play Neal so much.
“He brought it to me, said he wanted to go with Ryan and play him, knowing that he would wind up a lot with George Kittle, so we’d have a different matchup than a linebacker on him and it just worked out, you know?” Carroll said to Salk of Norton’s 49ers gameplan decision. “I was excited when he brought it up and I’m glad that it made a big difference.”
When asked after the Rams defeat by Smith if Neal would have helped versus the Rams’ crossing route beaters, Carroll’s answer again reflected Neal’s strictly passing down role.
“That has nothing to do with it, I’m sorry but that has nothing to do with it. They were first and second downs, you know?” the coach answered. “And he plays in the dime, you know, third down situations. Maybe we will resort to that. That was not in the gameplan. So it wouldn’t have made a difference I don’t think...but because you brought it up, I’m gonna check it out.”
Having "checked it out," Carroll reiterated his stance on Neal’s play time and situations, while also touching on how the offensive approach restricted Seattle’s substitutions.
“He was in the plan exactly the same as he was last week,” the coach said the day after.
“The situations didn’t arise. Because, really, we played him on third down last week; that’s where he made all his plays. And because of their tempo and all of that, there was some questions about getting guys on and off the field, we had to make sure we didn’t get caught, and so we weren’t as freely substituting. That’s why that happened. They have a tempo that restricts substitutions somewhat. And so, we won all those downs, anyway, so. I would love to have Ryan play because he’s a really good ball player but, in this gameplan, we wanted him to, if we could get it done we would have. But we weren’t able to get the connections with the personnel they had on, with the timing of the exchange from 2nd to 3rd down. We felt like we didn’t want to disrupt everybody else by running guys off.”
Carroll later added: “He [Neal] played in the dime package, he was the sixth DB, and so it didn’t match up.”
Quandre Diggs is Seattle’s super free safety. Adams, debate over his value notwithstanding, is viewed by the team as a star strong safety. Ugo Amadi and Marquise Blair have more experience than Neal matching up with wide receivers, especially slot types. That leaves Neal in a minor position.
Playing dime defense on early downs does not only contradict Seattle’s core philosophy of looking to stop the run first. No, there is a reason that zero NFL defenses employ six defensive backs as their base defensive personnel: it’s career suicide, over-compensating for pass and leaving the run defense super light. Seattle’s structure places the sixth defensive back essentially at the weakside linebacker spot, and it really is as simple as Jordyn Brooks being superior to Ryan Neal on early downs at WILL.
In Pittsburgh, Neal’s usage rose to 19 percent. This is indicative of Seattle wanting to use the strong safety more often, possibly influenced by Brooks’ struggles to compete at the cut-point and catch-point in coverage. However, unlike the 49ers game, the Seahawks were not in commanding enough, pass-obvious situations to let Neal play in their prevent cover 2 defenses. Once more, his usage ultimately reflected that, in neutral situations, he is only a third-down/clear passing situation player.
What was interesting about the Steelers matchup was how Neal was used to give Adams more freedom. When facing the 49ers, Neal was used to allow Adams to play a robber role in cover 1; the defensive strategy for the Steelers allowed Neal’s man coverage ability to let Adams play at defensive end on occasion in a 3-1-7 bandit package and overload front, with Adams on the isolated, one-on-one side.
Here is how Neal’s Sunday Night Football reps turned out—on plays without penalty or away from the goal line (the Seahawks called in a heavy packaged for the Eric Ebron, 23 personnel score which placed Adams, Blair and Neal on the field).
Seattle registered third down stops on nine of 12 third down situations—a 75 precent success rate (their third down percentage for the night ended at 64.3 percent). Neal was targeted once in man coverage and, despite allowing the catch, he got the stop with sound leverage to get the defense off the field. He did allow a 3rd and 4 first down catch dropping to the weak hook in cover 3, yet this was peak weird Ben Roethlisberger.
Neal’s role moving forward will be influenced by two NFL offensive trends. Firstly, 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) is the most commonly used personnel league-wide and that is especially true in passing situations. However, tempo is an increasingly fashionable goal for offenses, which could lead to Rams-style restriction to Neal’s play-time opportunities. It is nice to see the Seahawks’ defensive coach trying to get their best 11 on the field for each down.