Now in his third season with the organization, including spending most of 2019 on the practice squad, Ryan Neal hadn't seen any action on defense in the Seahawks first three regular season games. Playing against run-heavy teams by today's standards in the NFL, the team had been relying on "bear" fronts with five defensive linemen, which kept him on the sidelines aside from special teams duties.
But with Seattle's defense struggling to slow down opponents and giving up over 900 yards and 60 points in back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Minnesota, coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. decided to switch things up in Sunday's road contest against San Francisco. Set to face All-Pro tight end George Kittle, they dusted off their dime package, which features six defensive backs on the field, including Neal.
Logging a season-high 26 defensive snaps, Neal rewarded the faith of his coaches by providing a jolt for the Seahawks defense in a 28-21 victory over the 49ers, racking up four tackles while seeing extensive action "sugaring" the A gap like an additional standup linebacker. He made a key third down stop on athletic rookie quarterback Trey Lance, stuffing him short of the first down marker and forcing a third quarter punt.
In coverage, Neal was targeted three times by Jimmy Garoppolo and Lance, allowing two receptions for 17 yards. But one of those completions was on a third down screen and the young safety stopped Kittle well short of the first down marker and punter Mitch Wishnowsky missed a 41-yard field goal. On the other target to Kittle in the second quarter, Neal got his hand on the ball for a pass breakup to force another punt.
"Ryan seemed to have a great game today," Carroll told reporters in his post-game press conference. "That was something, looking at the tight end and how good he was, we just thought that the matchup might work out for us, and it helped us a little bit. He had a beautiful game. I don't know how many wins, but I thought he had some breakups on third downs. It was huge for the game.”
Throughout Carroll's 11-plus seasons at the helm, the Seahawks have been a perennial contender in the NFC, winning double-digit games eight times and making the playoffs nine times. While stars such as Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner have been critical to that sustained success, their foundation has consistently been built around unheralded, overlooked players.
As Seattle has stormed into the playoffs year in and year out, players such former undrafted signees Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and current defensive backs coach Deshawn Shead have served vital roles on offense, defense, and special teams. Several franchise icons like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor hovered under the radar coming into the league as well, carrying giant chips on their shoulders as a result.
After being discarded by both the Falcons and Eagles, and even being released by the Seahawks at one point, Carroll sees the same characteristic in Neal, who emerged as an unexpected gem last season. Jumping up from the practice squad in Week 3 against the Cowboys, he valiantly replaced an injured Jamal Adams and picked off Dak Prescott to seal a 38-31 win. He started the next four games, intercepting two passes and registering 32 tackles during a five-game span.
“I think Ryan is really one of the classic guys in the years that we've been here, that comes out of kind of nowhere," Carroll said. "He was kicked around a little bit. We got him from Atlanta. He was a corner at the time I think when we were looking at the film and then, we brought him in here and he kind of hung in there and was able to play a little safety from his background as a corner and then back and forth. He was very much like DeShawn Shead and kind of played a role like that."
Even after Adams returned, Neal's impressive play earned him snaps out of sub packages for the remainder of the season. Utilized as a sixth defensive back, he played at least 10 defensive snaps in each of Seattle's final three regular season games while also continuing to star on special teams.
Neal wrapped up the 2020 campaign with 44 tackles, five passes defensed, three tackles for loss, a safety, and a blocked punt, making an undeniable impact for Seattle in multiple ways.
When asked about Neal's performance on Sunday, Adams gushed about his safety counterpart, saying, "We know what Ryan is going to do. We see it all the time in practice. He is a phenomenal player and I am just excited to get out there on the field with him when he does play that well.”
As Carroll indicated, Neal is widely respected by coaches and teammates alike for his toughness and passion for the game, possessing the same DNA as notable undrafted predecessors before him like Baldwin and Kearse.
"He's a great competitor. He's a great practice player. He's a great inspiration to these guys. They love everything about the guy, because he's so tough and cares so much. It's so important to him. He gives you everything he's got."
"To me, he's like Doug [Baldwin] and Jermaine [Kearse] and those guys that kind of came out of, and even [former Seattle Seahawks WR Richard] Sherman, came out of nowhere. As a fifth-round pick, those guys were, kind of seem to be overlooked but they just had the chip on their shoulder and he is right in there. Guys like that are, that's the hardest role that this program has always been."
With Adams and Quandre Diggs locked in as starters in front of him at safety, Neal's playing time will continue to be dictated by opponent and game planning. But after once again energizing the defense and proving himself as a difference maker on Sunday, the Seahawks will have to be creative finding ways to get him onto the field more often moving forward.