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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Todd Bowles: Ryan Neal Put the Team First Against Panthers

Safety Ryan Neal stepped up on Sunday when the Bucs ran out of linebacker options, keeping the middle of the defense solid and turning in one of the biggest defensive plays of the game


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their Week 13 game against the Carolina Panthers with just two off-ball linebackers among their 48 active players. That was the absolute bare minimum, as the Buccaneers' defense keeps two players at that position on the field for virtually every snap of every game.

Lavonte David was sidelined for the second straight game by a groin injury. His replacement in Week 12, rookie SirVocea Dennis was laid out by an illness. The Bucs' other usual starter, Devin White, was out with a foot injury. That left the starting opportunities to third-year man K.J. Britt, who had one career start and 73 defensive snaps, most of it in the 2022 season finale in Atlanta when the Bucs rested their starters, and J.J. Russell, just promoted from the practice squad and with 45 career snaps, all in that same Falcons game. There was, on paper, no safety net if either Britt or Russell had to come out of the game.

But the Bucs did have a plan. His name was Ryan Neal.

In his sixth year in the NFL and his first with the Buccaneers, the 6-3, 200 pound Neal is a safety by trade, but his physical style of play and proven production around the line of scrimmage made him the emergency option on Sunday. He didn't have much time to prepare, though, as the severity of the Bucs' linebacker situation wasn't fully obvious until Thursday of the practice week. After the game, which Tampa Bay won 21-18, Head Coach Todd Bowles said that Neal had "a walk-through and a couple reps" to get ready.

"It was just like, 'Well, just in case of emergency, just make sure you kind of know what's going on,' so that's what it was," recounted Neal on Monday. "Just taking a little reps here and there. That was the whole thought process going into, just emergency situations."

The emergency alarm sounded early. Britt played just seven snaps before suffering a back injury in the first quarter, and on came Neal to play next to Russell. He would finish the game with four tackles, including one for a loss, and most importantly would keep the Bucs' defense from having an obvious weakness the Panthers could exploit. Carolina was held to 282 yards of offense and three third-down conversion in 15 tries.

"I kind of was just going into the game, thinking my normal routine – special teams, some base defense – and the next thing you know a player gets hurt, my guy K.J.," said Neal. "That's when I knew, okay it's about to get real now."

Bowles praised Neal's efforts after the game and again on Monday.

"He's a tough guy, he's a smart guy, and more importantly, he is a team guy," said the coach. "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. He naturally can read, see the game, and the [linebackers] helped him out too. You know, J.J. when he was in there, Coach [Larry] Foote did a good job getting him prepped up on the sidelines. He played a heck of a ball game for us."

Neal's tackle for loss was one of the most important defensive plays of the game, considering the narrow winning margin. Early in the second quarter the Panthers faced a third-and-one at the Buccaneers' two-yard line. Neal run-blitzed around the left edge and chased running back Chuba Hubbard down from behind, diving to trip him for a three-yard loss. Carolina settled for a short field goal.

Britt had come out of the game earlier on that same possession. Neal had been thrown into the fire earlier than anyone would have guessed, but that first exposure let him know he could handle it.

"After the first drive, I was like, 'Okay, I think I've got a feel for it now,'" he said. "It was not knocking rust off, it was like, 'Okay, let me get a feel for the speed.' After that, I was like, 'Alright, cool. We're going to keep it cool, keep it basic, be fast and play fast, read your keys. You studied some film so you kind of know what's going on.'"

Neal said the heavy rain that fell for most of the first half helped, as it hindered both offenses, particularly in the passing game, and narrowed the number of unfamiliar reads he had to make. Having played in a similar role in some limited work in dime packages with the Seattle Seahawks, Ryan realized he did have an idea of the fronts and coverages he would be seeing from the linebacker position and knowledge of the drops and run fits he had to execute.

The Bucs believe Dennis will be back in action soon, and there's a chance David returns from his injury in time to play in Atlanta next Sunday. Britt was getting an MRI on his back on Monday. There's a chance the team won't Neal to play out of position again this season, and that this will prove to be an interesting but novel footnote on his career. If so, he's happy that it happened, and that he was ready and willing to make it work.

"It was a really cool moment," said Neal. "It really didn't all hit me until I got in the locker room, what transpired. At the moment I was like, I've got to do my job. Let's just make it and get off the field when we can. You're stuck in that mode, and then you get in the locker room and realize what you did. I wasn't really thinking about it, then when I got home, I was like, 'Okay, that was pretty cool.'

"I was just doing the best I could do. It was fun."

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