TAMPA — One play that may be overlooked from the Bucs’ 17-16 comeback win over the Saints Monday night left a huge impact on both the game and the body of New Orleans tight end Taysom Hill.
The Saints faced third and 17 from their 28-yard line with less than three minutes remaining and needed only a first down to perhaps melt away the rest of the clock when Hill appeared to catch a perfectly arced pass from quarterback Andy Dalton.
But as Hill tried to put the football and the game away, he was struck in the chest by Bucs safety Keanu Neal, one of the most violent hitters in the NFL.
The pass fell incomplete and the Bucs took over on downs, allowing Tom Brady to mount the game-winning drive.
“Oh man, you could not throw this any better than Andy Dalton just did,” former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said during the ESPN broadcast. “He gets it over (Bucs linebacker) Lavonte David’s head, and for Keanu Neal to come in —and it looked like (Hill) had it — and (Neal) is the one that comes in and jars it loose, along with (cornerback) Jamel Dean.”
What was remarkable is that Neal was able to lower his target and strike Hill legally with his shoulder pads, separating him from the football without drawing a penalty for an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver.
“It was a huge play by him,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said Tuesday. “Keanu was physical the whole ballgame. It shouldn’t have even gotten to that point where (Hill) got his hands on the ball, but (Neal) made a play that was important for us to get the ball back and win the ballgame.”
It’s one thing to save the game, it’s another to save face.
Neal did both when he forced Hill to drop the pass, giving the Bucs the ball back with 2:29 remaining needing a touchdown and extra point to win the game.
That’s because in the second quarter, Neal was involved in a busted coverage that resulted in the Saints’ only touchdown ― a 30-yard strike to Hill from Dalton. That was as much on Dean as it was Neal, as the Bucs’ cornerback jumped inside by watching the quarterback’s eyes.
“It was a bust in coverage,” Bowles said. “(Dalton) pump-faked one way and drew the coverage over there, then he had time and looked back the other way. We didn’t get back in coverage. There were several people involved.”
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Neal was only in the lineup because starting safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards were inactive due to injuries.
Signed as a free agent from the Cowboys, Neal was known to the Bucs from his days with the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons. While playing for the Falcons six years ago, Neal delivered a devastating blow to Bucs receiver Mike Evans along the sideline after Evans made a one-handed catch during a “Thursday Night Football” game.
Neal may not have gotten the opportunity to lower the boom on Hill had outside linebacker Carl Nassib not sacked Dalton for a 10-yard loss on second down, back to the New Orleans 18-yard line. With the season-ending knee injury to Shaquil Barrett, Nassib has delivered some pass-rush help.
“Carl has become very valuable,” Bowles said. “The best play he made was the tipped ball on the third and 2 (from the Bucs 11 with just over eight minutes remaining) that went down where they had to kick a field goal in addition to the sack.
“Carl has been very physical. He brings a lot of energy for us. We can’t replace Shaq (Barrett), but he can do some different things in the run game and be a power pass rusher for us to help out with the sacks.”
The Bucs could have both Winfield and Edwards back for Sunday’s game at San Francisco. They were fortunate Monday to be able to activate safety Logan Ryan from injured reserve prior to playing the Saints.
Neal finished with five tackles and one pass defensed. After allowing the touchdown to Hall, the Bucs kept the Saints out of the end zone, forcing Will Lutz to kick three field goals.
The star of the defense was David, who recorded 12 tackles, two solo, two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hit.
“He played a solid ballgame,” Bowles said. “Him and (inside linebacker) Devin (White) passed the zones off very well. They tackled for the most part. . ... He’s one of our leaders on defense, and everybody rallies behind him.”
For all the struggles on offense, it’s the Bucs’ defense that has carried them to a 6-6 record. In close games, one or two plays decide the winner. One second Hill had the ball in his hands and the Saints controlled the game. In just a flash, Neal changed all that and the Bucs were able to escape with a one-point win.
“In the NFL, you’re not going to blow a lot of people out,” Bowles said. “We won a lot of close games when we won the Super Bowl, as well. Every year, it’s going to come down to a score or two. You’ve just got to have details and win the ballgame. (If) you win enough of them consistently, they’ll start turning into larger (margins) when the confidence grows. But it’s going to be a dogfight every week from here on out.”
Neal, for one, is ready for it.
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