Amid Wild 24-Hour Ride, Ryan Neal Surfaces as Unexpected Hero for Seahawks
SEATTLE, WA - When Ryan Neal arrived at the VMAC on Saturday for team meetings, the third-year defender wasn't expecting any surprises. As one of 16 players on the Seahawks practice squad, he wasn't slated to dress for the team in Sunday's matchup against the Cowboys.
But after entering the team facility, Neal quickly found out he was listed as a starter for a couple of Seattle's special teams units. With injuries ravaging their secondary, including Quinton Dunbar battling a knee issue, he had received a last-minute promotion to the active roster due to a new league rule allowing teams to elevate up to two practice squad players for game day each week.
"I honestly can't even walk you through the past 24 hours," Neal told reporters "Literally walking into meetings thinking I'm still on the practice squad and everything and next thing you know, I'm starting on a couple special teams and I'm just like 'alright, here we go' by doing my job coming in and just giving my best effort."
Sporting his No. 35 jersey for the first time in the 2020 season, Neal wasn't supposed to factor into the Seahawks defensive plans against a high-powered Cowboys offense led by quarterback Dak Prescott and a trio of talented receivers. But with Dunbar, Neiko Thorpe, and Lano Hill inactive, he was just one injury at cornerback or safety away from being thrust into the lineup.
Sure enough, early in the fourth quarter, Jamal Adams tweaked his groin while trying to chase down Prescott on a blitz. As the star safety walked gingerly to the sidelines, Neal didn't even have a chance to process that he was now being thrust into a tightly-contested matchup as a replacement, strapping up his helmet and quickly taking the field.
"It happened so fast, I don't even think I had an opportunity to have a moment, you know?" Neal reflected. "You in it and next time you see Jamal and I hear 'Neal!' and I'm like 'look, let's strap up and let's go,' so it wasn't even a moment to be had."
Illustrating the growing importance of fringe players during a season unlike any other playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, both Neal and Shaquem Griffin, the other player promoted for this week's game, found themselves on the field with Seattle trying to stop Dallas' final attempt to tie the game late in regulation.
Moments after Russell Wilson connected with DK Metcalf on a 29-yard touchdown to help the Seahawks retake the lead 38-31, Prescott swiftly moved the Cowboys down to the opposing 22-yard line with under 30 seconds to play. Someone needed to step up and make a play, something Seattle hadn't been able to do for most of the second half while letting a 15-point lead evaporate in rapid fashion.
After a sack by rookie Alton Robinson forced the Cowboys to burn their final timeout, Prescott and his team broke the huddle with an empty formation and faced 3rd and 14 with just 16 seconds left to play. They needed to take a shot for the end zone or the sidelines, as a completion to the middle of the field wouldn't leave enough time to spike the football.
Prescott took the snap and somehow escaped a would-be sack from Benson Mayowa, stumbling and scrambling out to his left with precious seconds ticking away. With less than 10 seconds on the clock, he fired for the end zone, praying for a late miracle.
But on this day, the Cowboys wouldn't have their prayers answered. Throwing into heavy coverage, Neal leaped in front of receivers Michael Gallup and Noah Brown, going from practice squad afterthought to savior by registering his first career NFL interception to seal the victory.
"This is a game where somebody goes down, you the next man up and it's just - you gotta come in here and finish the job," Neal said. "I never once doubted anything. I mean, in my mind, we were going to win the game and that's what I was there to do. Thank god they gave me one, threw me one my way and I just went up there and made a play."
Having bounced around with the Falcons, Eagles, and Seahawks practice squads since entering the league as a free agent out of Southern Illinois in 2018, Neal told reporters he considered quitting on multiple occasions. But he has stayed faithful to the process, grinding it out despite being handed plenty of adversity being cut numerous times, including earlier this month.
After coming up with a huge play for the Seahawks to close out a tough Cowboys team, Neal was near speechless after the game, struggling to find words as he basked in the limelight for the first time. Barring a permanent promotion to the active roster, he will revert back to the team's practice squad this week, but as he's been doing his entire career, he will be prepared for whenever his next opportunity knocks.
"In all three years, I've had the opportunity to get activated and you got to be ready for your moment, man. I tell all the other guys that's on the practice squad and undrafted guys, 'man, I'm in your boat too,' so you just never know when it's your moment, so always stay ready and always stay working."