It is easy to assume that the highlights of CB Ryan Neal’s nascent pro football career are the final pass of the Cowboys game, and the first pass of the Dolphins game. He intercepted both. For a first-timer in the Seahawks lineup, that’s freakin’ cool.
But the picks apparently are tied for second in his football thrill-o-meter. Topping both was when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll tapped him on the shoulder after the Cowboys game and asked if he wanted the contact info for Kam Chancellor. To talk ball.
Carroll knew starting SS Jamal Adams was going to be out awhile with a groin strain, backup Lano Hill (back) was also hurt, and CBs Quinton Dunbar and Neiko Thorpe were down. Neal, a practice-squad warrior, was the next man up.
But the learning curve for an undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois is almost straight up.
So . . . um, hell0, Mr. Chancellor, sir?
“It was super cool, man, probably one of the coolest things I got so far,” Neal said on a Zoom conference Wednesday that was delightfully unabashed. “At first, I’m like a fan — ‘Ohgawd, like, this is Kam!’ Even though I see him every day in the building, I mean, coming up through the football world, everybody watches the Legion of Boom.”
Momentarily star-struck by one of the legendary football figures of his youth, Neal, 24, pulled it together.
“He broke down all my practice films,” he said. “I was like, man, this is just incredible. I had a lot of people help me help me out through that process to make it even easier to get me to play like I can.
“But for me to play in similar defenses that he played in . . . it was the best thing ever for him to reach out and tell me exactly how he saw things.”
There is, it seems, something to be said for sustained success. A legacy can live on.
In his first pro start, Neal was one of four Seattle defenders to play all 71 snaps. Besides the pick of a tipped ball, he had six tackles and two passes defensed. Whatever weaknesses his inexperience may have exposed, the Dolphins failed to exploit, not scoring a touchdown until less than two minutes remained in Seattle’s 31-23 win.
Apparently Chancellor’s Yoda act worked well — Pro Football Focus gave Neal a grade of 74.7, fifth among all safeties.
Carroll and GM John Schneider spotted Neal on film from his brief tenure in Atlanta, and signed him to the practice squad Sept. 3, 2019.
“An attack player, is what caught my eye,” Carroll said. “He showed a really aggressive style. He’s tall (6-3) and long, and we thought he could play corner for us. He’d grown up as a safety, we understand, which helps him in our system because we don’t have a hesitation at all to match him up with whoever.
“It’s not just athleticism, it’s the smarts, his attitude and his character added to it.”
A revised game plan also helped.
Absent Adams, an accomplished pass rusher, the Seahawks backed away from the heavy blitz action of the first three games that typically left pass coverage a man down. According to Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks brought extra pressure 23 times in 57 pass plays against Dallas, compared to five in 45 against Miami.
Carroll was mortified at the yardage numbers surrendered in the first three games — an NFL-record 1,292 air yards.
“I’m not accustomed to that, and I let these kids know it,” he said. “We needed to fix that now. That’s where it starts. If you’re giving up big plays, you’re no good. Fortunately, we survived kind of the growing pains.”
Carroll Monday explained the decision to back off, which helped confine Miami to a single play of more than 25 yards.
“When you pressure, you change your ratios, and there’s more space on the field,” he said. “If you don’t get home, you don’t cause an effect on your opponent. Then they get a chance to make more yards.
“It happened two weeks ago on two different plays (against Dallas for two touchdowns) because we were minus one defender in our coverage.”
Carroll sort of admitted he became a little too smitten with Adams’ ability to disrupt the passer.
“It does have something to do with Jamal,” he said. “He’s an incredible pressure guy and we love sending him. But we changed it by design to make sure that we just slowed it down. We needed to do a better job, so we did.”
Presumably the same defensive plan is in store for the Sunday night game at the Clink against 1-3 Minnesota, particularly since Carroll said Adams will be held out again and Thorpe was put on injured reserve (three weeks minimum) for what seems to be a sports hernia. Dunbar is scheduled to practice Thursday, but his status for Sunday is unknown.
The Seahawks hope to increase the up-front pressure after the signings Wednesday of two veteran free agent defensive linemen, Damon (Snacks) Harrison, 32 next month, and Jonathan Bullard, 26, off Arizona’s practice squad.
Harrison is a 350-pound, one-time All-Pro tackle who was signed to the practice squad so the Seahawks can see his condition after his last game nearly 10 months ago with Detroit. Bullard started 11 of his 55 NFL games after the Bears drafted him in the third round in 2016.
Bullard was signed to the 53-man roster, taking the spot of Thorpe, to back up L.J. Collier at rush end. If Harrison, who contemplated retirement, is in sufficient shape, he can be elevated to the active roster Sunday.
As to source of his nickname, Harrison was notorious for eating during meetings while with the Jets. No word yet whether Chancellor has been called to advise him on dining etiquette on Seattle.