FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Veteran Dwight Freeney and rookie Keanu Neal, newcomers who carry big expectations on Atlanta’s defense, are expected to make their preseason debuts against Cleveland tonight.
Freeney, the defensive end, was held out of last week’s preseason opener against Washington after reaching a deal with the team early this month.
Neal, the team’s first-round draft pick from Florida, is projected as the starting strong safety. He has returned from a trunk/torso injury.
The Falcons hope Freeney, 36, can boost the team’s long-suffering pass rush. The Falcons have ranked no higher than 28th in the league in sacks since 2012 and were last with only 19 last season.
“It’ll be good to get that rust off a little bit,” Freeney said Tuesday.
Freeney had eight sacks in 11 games in 2015 with Arizona. Vic Beasley Jr. led Atlanta with only four sacks as a rookie last season.
Freeney won’t start in the base defense but should have plenty of chances to chase quarterbacks. Coach Dan Quinn expects to use a nickel package in about 60 percent of snaps.
Quinn said he has been impressed with Freeney’s “passion for football,” even when he’s just walking down the hallway, staring at his iPad “watching pass rush from the day over and over.”
“I think his passion for what he does just totally shows up in the way that he trains, the way that he prepares, his stretch routine to come out to practice,” Quinn said. “He just has his world in order in terms of doing everything he can in order to max it out.”
Freeney, a three-time first-team All Pro, signed with the Cardinals six weeks into the 2015 season. He said joining the team without the benefit of training camp was an “anomaly” that has helped him enjoy his more normal preparation with the Falcons.
“If I could do it all over again, I’d probably take some time in training camp to get right,” Freeney said of his 2015 season.
“I think that’s all part of it. It’s finding your legs, getting your feet under you, knocking off the rust, getting your timing back. I think that’s the benefit of training camp.”
Quinn said Neal has full clearance for the game.
“We want to make sure we get him the right amount of reps to get going,” Quinn said. “We’re anxious for him to get some quarters here in the next three weeks.”