Gators in NFL: Falcons’ Neal suffers season-ending knee injury

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Atlanta safety Keanu Neal (22) is helped off the field after an injury during the first half Thursday against the Philadelphia Eagles, in Philadelphia. Neal will miss the remainder of the season after hurting his left knee. The loss of Neal, a leader on the defense who was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2017, is a major blow to the Atlanta defense.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons will look at their current roster to replace Keanu Neal, the safety who will miss the remainder of the season after tearing a ligament in his left knee Thursday night in an 18-12 opening loss at Philadelphia.

Coach Dan Quinn said Friday he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff discussed outside options that could include free agent Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid.

“We have talked about that,” Quinn said when asked specifically about Reid.

The loss of Neal, a leader on the defense who was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2017, is a major blow to the Atlanta defense.

“It’s very disappointing,” defensive end Takkarist McKinley said following a team meeting on Friday. “He is a leader on this team, our best player. Losing him, someone else has got to step up. We’ve all got to step up.”

Friday’s news was especially devastating because the initial diagnosis of the Falcons medical staff, which Quinn relayed to reporters following the game, was the injury wasn’t believed to be serious. The team learned Friday Neal had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.

“You can imagine he was certainly heartbroken,” said Quinn of Neal. “… It was a tough, emotional day.”

Neal used his Twitter account to pass along a message of faith. “TRUST in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. He has a plan,” Neal wrote.

The injury news added more shock to a Falcons locker room reeling from another close loss to the Eagles. After being stopped on the goal line in a playoff loss in Philadelphia last season, the Falcons again were denied on five plays in the red zone to end the game.

Then came Friday’s news that Neal was lost for the season.

“You can’t replace a guy like that,” said cornerback Desmond Trufant. “We’ve just got to pray for him and pick up the slack.”

Neal hurt his knee in the first half, returned in the second half and then left the game for good.

Quinn said he didn’t think Neal aggravated the injury by returning to the game.

Neal was a 2016 first-round draft pick from Florida and one of the key building blocks on Quinn’s defense. Neal had 113 tackles with one interception, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries while starting every game last season.

Neal also has set the pace for the defense with his physical style.

“His physical nature is one that he plays like a linebacker, but is fast enough to play in the middle part of the field and play outside,” Quinn said. “We’ll certainly miss him because of the physical nature he plays with.”

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