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Keanu Neal a key component for the Cowboys new speed and physicality culture on defense

The Cowboys are trying to change how their defense plays the game.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

When it comes to the Dallas Cowboys defense over the last five years or so, the excitement level has never really been high. They have had some quality players over that time, but the defense never generated any heat, there was no Doomsday Defense moniker to throw around (sorry, but Hot Boyz was never really it). It was more a case of that unit just trying to keep its head above water.

Players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones had put up high-quality seasons, but overall the unit generally generated a big, fat “meh”. They were oatmeal, vanilla, they were not memorable.

Dan Quinn hopes to change that starting in 2021. The Cowboys have gone out with a mandate of creating a fast and physical defense. That change can’t happen overnight, but they are starting the transition to a new culture on defense. One that will be memorable.

It’s one of the reasons they went after Micah Parsons in the draft once they couldn’t get a top cornerback. Parsons is as athletically gifted as they come, running a 4.39 forty time at 6’ 3”, 246 pounds. That is amazing. Parsons also adds physicality in the middle and was a tackling machine, plus an adept pass rusher. The Cowboys are expecting a true playmaker in the middle of the defense.

They also want physicality from other players. They likely already have that in strong safety Donovan Wilson. Of all the Cowboys defenders, his hits are the most memorable. He’s the one that is likely to intimidate, to fire up his teammates, to create turnovers from his devastating collisions. Like this one with Dalvin Cook from last year.

The Cowboys need more of that type of physicality and mentality on defense. That was the mandate of Quinn when he took the job. That is why he went after one of his former players, Keanu Neal.

Neal, among other things, is known as a hard-hitter. He was a safety in the same vein as Wilson. They even played the same position. Now that Neal is in Dallas, he is transitioning to linebacker, but he doesn’t think that will be a big deal. He’s used to playing in the box, now he’ll just be a yard or two closer to the line of scrimmage.

“The first few years and throughout my career I’ve played in the box,” Neal said. “I’ve played down at times, so I kind of have an understanding of the fits and all that stuff. But yeah, I typically play around like 6 yards or so, and Coach is trying to get me to bump down to like 5 or 4½. So that adjustment, I’m kind of getting used to that.”

What won’t be different is his physical style of play. Jack Crawford is a former Cowboys player who was also a teammate of Neal in Atlanta. Here’s what he had to say about the Cowboys newest linebacker.

“He’s probably the hardest hitter I’ve seen,” said Crawford, who was Neal’s teammate for three seasons after his own three-year run with the Cowboys (2014-16). “Just YouTube him and hardest hits, and I’m sure it will be a whole highlight reel. He hits like nobody else.”

Neal was asked in an article by Todd Archer about his hardest hit. He said there have been a few, but he remembers one on a Saints receiver in his rookie year. That was likely this hit.

The Cowboys could use some of that on their defense. They could use some intimidation, a few players on that side of the ball who offensive players are always looking out for. It can cause turnovers. It can cause alligator arms for receivers that turn into incomplete passes. One hit can fire up a defense and elevate the play of everyone. It can give a defense an identity, a swagger.

That’s what Quinn wants. Flexible position players who have speed and physicality.

“Adding somebody with his speed and his physicality onto our defense, we just thought that’s something that we need,” Quinn said of Neal. “Same thing with Micah [Parsons]. ... I’m really looking forward to having the different packages and how we’ll feature the guys, and it will take us a while to figure it out.”

Keanu Neal will help as a player who knows Quinn’s system and can help the other guys get used to the new scheme. He can help cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield from the weakside linebacker position. But maybe he can help even more by being a physical, intimidating presence that inspires his teammates. Maybe he, and a few others, can transform our perceptions of the Cowboys defense.