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Finally, a great moment arrives for versatile Bucs defender Ryan Neal

The free-agent acquisition has struggled at strong safety but stepped up as an emergency linebacker in Tampa Bay’s win over Carolina.
 
Bucs safety-turned-linebacker Ryan Neal attempts to tackle Carolina Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard during Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs safety-turned-linebacker Ryan Neal attempts to tackle Carolina Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard during Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | AP ]
Published Dec. 4, 2023

TAMPA —Todd Bowles stood in the middle of the Bucs locker room following their 21-18 win over the Panthers on Sunday and handed out two game balls.

The first went to receiver Mike Evans, who eclipsed 60 catches and 1,000 yards for the tenth straight season to start his career.

The other went to a Swiss Army knife player who at times this season struggled to find a solid role with the team.

“This guy played linebacker for one day of practice,” Bowles said, “and the third play of the game when K.J. (Britt) went down, this guy came in and played ‘backer the entire ballgame after only taking a handful of reps.”

Strong safety, nickel corner — and now linebacker — Ryan Neal stepped forward to claim his prize. Entering the game early in the first quarter after Britt suffered a back injury, Neal recorded four tackles and one vitally important tackle for loss to keep the Bucs’ slim playoff hopes alive.

Neal had only a couple of reps on Thursday and practiced some on Friday at linebacker for a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scenario. Both starting inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White were inactive due to injuries, and rookie SirVocea Dennis missed the week with an illness.

Bucs safety Ryan Neal (23) watches a replay from the sideline during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in September in Tampa.
Bucs safety Ryan Neal (23) watches a replay from the sideline during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in September in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Really, on Thursday and Friday it was just like, ‘Well, just in case of emergency we’re just letting you kind of know what’s going on,’” Neal said. “That’s what it was. It was taking little reps here and there, and that was the whole thought process going into it.

“... So I was just kind of going into the game thinking my normal routine — special teams and some base defense. Next thing you know, a player gets hurt, my guy, K.J., and that’s when I knew like, ‘OK, it’s about to get real now.’”

In fact, Neal was involved in one of the biggest plays of the game.

Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, the Panthers faced third and 1 at the Bucs 2-yard line. Neal came off the corner on a blitz and tackled running back Chuba Hubbard for a 3-yard loss, forcing Carolina to settle for a field goal.

“We had a cool call where I just blitz off the edge,” Neal said. “I kind of knew what was going to happen. They were going to try to run downhill at us. I came through untouched, and at that point it was run the ballcarrier down. Give effort, run as fast as you can and get this dude on the ground. It was a huge play, and I was glad I was able to make it and it was a big momentum thing for us.”

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Maybe for Neal, too. Prior to the game, there had been more bad moments than great ones for him.

The free agent from Seattle began the season as the Bucs’ starting strong safety. But he struggled to make plays, especially in the passing game. In a 16-13 loss to Atlanta in October, he took a bad angle and let tight end Kyle Pitts put the Falcons in position for a game-winning field goal. Eventually, he was replaced on passing downs by safety Dee Delaney.

“It’s been a struggle, you know what I mean?” Neal said. “I take that personal, and I take that hard when I can’t come through for the guys around me in the locker room to begin with. Just to kind of have that moment (Sunday), it’s like it’s time to step up. Just step up and be that guy for the team and just get the win. It meant a lot.”

Bucs safeties Ryan Neal (23) and Christian Izien (29) and linebacker Lavonte David (54) celebrate a defensive stop during a game against the Falcons in October in Tampa.
Bucs safeties Ryan Neal (23) and Christian Izien (29) and linebacker Lavonte David (54) celebrate a defensive stop during a game against the Falcons in October in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

If Bowles started rattling off all the ways he has used Neal on the football field this season, he would sound like Forrest Gump’s Army buddy Bubba listing the different culinary uses for shrimp.

Neal can play safety. He can play nickel corner. He can play corner. He can drop into coverage. He can rush the passer.

“He’s a tough guy, he’s a smart guy, and more importantly he is a team guy,” Bowles said. “He’ll do whatever it takes for the team to win. He’s very aware on the field. He doesn’t just understand his job, so I think that helps him a little bit. I think that helped going to linebacker.”

David also did a lot of coaching on the sidelines to help Neal, who had surgery on his right thumb three weeks ago and did not play in the 27-20 loss to the Colts on Nov. 26.

“I’ve been in a cast since then,” Neal said. “When I play, shoot, it’s football. You’re going to play with pain. In my case, I’m right-handed. You’re going to play left-handed sometimes, and that’s just the name of the game.

“It’s a long season. Nobody is always 100%, so you’ve just got to be able to work around it and use your other abilities to play the game and use your brain. I don’t think it hindered me much.”

Neal admitted to being nervous when he entered the game at linebacker but said it didn’t take long to shake the feeling.

“After the first drive, I was like, ‘OK, I think I got a feel for it now,” he said. “Not knocking rust off, it was just let me get a feel for the speed. After that, it was like, cool, we know we’re going to keep it cool and be basic. Just be fast and play fast. Read your keys. Shoutout to the rain for falling, because it took away a lot of things. They can only do so much. So after that, it was just, play ball, man.”

Receiving the game ball was unexpected. It was at that moment Neal allowed himself to think about the big role he had played in the Bucs’ win.

“It really didn’t hit me until I got into the locker room and what transpired,” he said. “At the moment, it was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to just do my job. Let’s just make it and get off the field real fast.’ You’re kind of stuck in that mode. Then you get in the locker room and you’re like, ‘Man, you know what you just did?’ I wasn’t really thinking about it, but then when I got home I was like, ‘That was pretty cool.’”

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