The Pittsburgh Steelers busy free agency included the signing of safety Keanu Neal. Today I wanted to provide some data context to what he provided last season as a run defender, along with Pittsburgh’s 2022 safeties as well, considering Neal’s services could likely aim to replace the departed Terrell Edmunds who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Let’s get right to it, starting with 2022 run snaps and average tackle depth on such plays from PFF to get a gauge of the position comparatively.
Here we see Neal had the strongest average tackle depth of the players we’re focused on, at 5.0 which ranked 12th in the NFL last season out of 80 qualifying safeties. This is an encouraging factor to his game, a downhill and hard-hitting safety that makes tackles close to the line of scrimmage. It’s also important to note that he played the majority of his 580 total snaps in the box (40.2%), which can aid the depth of tackle results compared to a primary deep safety (in which he played 29.7%). Neal’s run snaps came in at 239 though (67th), playing 15 games in his lone year with the Buccaneers in 2022, substantially lower than the Steelers safeties.
Edmunds was the only player in our sights to land above the mean in both, with a 6.7 average tackle depth that ranked 28th, along with a slightly above-the-mean 354 run snaps (45th). Out of 886 total snaps in 2022, 36.3% of them came in the box, along with 28.7% at deep safety, compared to Neal who played more in the box along with a similar rate in deep alignments. Minkah Fitzpatrick topped the highlighted players with 368 run snaps (37th), but had a well below the mean 11.4 average tackle depth that ranked 72nd. This gives comparative context to the other two players, considering a high 68.2% of his 939 total snaps came at deep safety (with just 17.1% in the box), and unfortunately had to make several run tackles as the last line of defense in 2022. Hopefully Neal and/or Damontae Kazee (didn’t qualify due to lack of opportunities) can make an impact in the box in 2023 to remedy this goal for the black and gold.
Now let’s look at types of tackles, solo versus assisted tackles against the run:
Neal and Fitzpatrick had the most solo run tackles of the focused players (27) which tied for 37th league-wide. This is encouraging considering the former’s lower number of snap opportunities comparatively, pairing this with 12 assists (T-26th), with each being slightly above average league-wide. The latter had the strongest overall result of the players in our sights in assisted run tackles (20), which tied for sixth in the NFL last season. Edmunds was the only player below the mean in solo run tackles (20) which tied for 49th and had a much stronger 13 assists (T-19th). If Neal’s opportunities increase from 2022 with Pittsburgh, here’s to hoping his ability to make solo tackles in the run game can carry over and be a successful ingredient for an improved 2023 Steelers defense.
Next, I wanted to see how the players fared in a ‘hit or miss’ type view with stop percentage, which uses the successful play rates formula (less than 40% on first down, 50% or less on second down, and third or fourth down plays kept from a first down or touchdown) and missed tackle percentage:
Very valuable information from this chart, starting with Neal. He fared very well last season with a 6% stop percentage, which ranked fourth best in the NFL. This points to very timely and meaningful situational tackling that we hopefully see first-hand in 2023. Unfortunately, there was another side to the coin though, with Neal missing 15.2% of his run tackles last year, which was tied for a below-average 46th in the NFL. Edmunds was slightly worse in this regard (15.4%) which tied for 49th, and didn’t have the same impact in terms of stop rate (3.2, T-31st), though he was still above league average. Fitzpatrick’s results were strong where expected, with a missed tackle rate (9.6) that ranked 25th, but a much lower 60th in stop percentage (1.4). Of course, playing deep safety has a lot to do with this, but it’s still a lower rate than I expected. Here’s to hoping Neal can provide similar value from 2022 in stopping the run while cleaning up his missed tackles.
To close, let’s look at a more total view of how the players fared in the run game with PFF run defense grades along with points above replacement (the difference between the player’s points above average and a replacement level player in the same facet of the game) from Sports Info Solutions (SIS):
Right away we see the focused players were all above average in SIS’s PAR metric. Fitzpatrick had the top rank in both data points, with an 82.2 PFF run defense grade that was eighth best in the NFL, and a 3.1 PAR number that tied for 13th, faring very strongly with more factors taken into account. Edmunds had a 0.8 PAR that tied for 26th but had a below-average 63.4 PFF run defense grade (49th). Neal was second of the players in our sights with a 1.7 PAR figure that tied for 19th in the NFL, which is encouraging to see in comparison, but was graded much lower in PFF’s eyes at 52.5 which ranked 69th, notably weighting missed tackle rates highly in their grades as we’ve come to find in our research here at Steelers Depot.
So, Neal fared best in stop rate with the fourth rank league-wide in 2022, along with a top 15 rank in average depth of tackle, pointing to his most recent strong suits in the run game that he can hopefully bring with him to Pittsburgh. He was also above average in PAR, as well as solo and assisted run tackles, with the latter being impressive given his below-average snap opportunities. His missed tackle rate and PFF run defense grade were other lowlights in his 2022 campaign, with the former being very high on my radar to see how he fares in the black and gold, and an area the Steelers definitely need to improve in 2023. If Neal can provide this from the box position (which he played primarily last year), it could be huge for Pittsburgh as they aim for a more consistent run defense this season. One thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
What are your takeaways from the data? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.