FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons are eager for the return of rookie safety Keanu Neal to bolster a defense that ranks 26th in yards allowed per game through the first two weeks of the season.
Neal was selected with the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He's recovering from arthroscopic right knee surgery on Aug. 25 and is set to see his first action against the New Orleans Saints (0-2) on Monday night.
Neal was drafted to add a physical presence to the defense and help limit the explosive plays that have plagued the Falcons' (1-1) defense in recent years. He could breathe life in the defense that has given up eight touchdowns drives of 75 yards or more over 23 possessions to start the season.
"We are optimistic but we will have to see how it goes Thursday, Friday and Saturday on the three big work days," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
Without Neal, the Falcons have only had four three-and-outs and have forced just nine punts.
Of the eight long scoring drives, four of them were aided by penalties: Adrian Clayborn jumping offsides on third down; Robert Alford being called for unnecessary roughness; Alford on a pass interference; and miscommunication between Dashon Goldson and Justin Hardy that led to a 12 men on the field penalty.
There have been some highlights such as Desmond Trufant's interception and the defense stopping the Oakland Raiders on a fourth-and-2. Two drives ended as time expired. There has been one made field goal and one missed field goal.
It's going to be a long season if the defense continues to give up the long drives and committing penalties.
In addition to getting Neal back, the Falcons are set to re-sign O'Brien Schofield, who had 28 tackles, four tackles for losses, 2.0 sacks and 13 quarterback hits last season with the Falcons.
Neal may be able to help the Falcons' anemic pass rush as a blitzer, too.
The Falcons had no quarterback sacks while losing to the Buccaneers in Week 1. They had one sack against Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, but Quinn said the overall pressure wasn't any better.
"For us to play like we need to that part of our game has got to come through," Quinn said.
The Falcons didn't sack Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston on 32 drop backs in Week 1 but were credited with six quarterback hits against the Raiders. Quinn and Falcons defenders said they affected Winston and noted his knack for delivering passes even while corralled by defenders.
Vic Beasley recorded the only sack against Carr when he chased him out of bounds for no gain on a play that was designed for Carr to sprint out of the pocket. The Falcons were credited with just one quarterback hit, by defensive tackle Tyson Jackson against the Raiders.
Quinn said the Falcons counted nine pressures and three hits against Carr, who passed 45 times. He said that still wasn't enough.
"We are a work in progress there, for sure," Quinn said. "We've got work to do. We've got a long season ahead. We are going to get a lot better at it but we are not where I'd like to be yet in terms of the way we want to go after the quarterback."
SERIES HISTORY: 94th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series 48-45. The Saints have won four of the past five meetings in the Superdome, including last season's 31-21 victory on a Thursday night game.
--LB Sean Weatherspoon: Weatherspoon, who was in the starting lineup for the injured De'Vondre Campbell (ankle), made his first NFL start since the 2013 season last week. Weatherspoon, a former first-round pick, started seven games in 2013, including the one against Washington on Dec. 15, 2013. He suffered an Achilles injury and missed the 2014 season. He signed with Arizona in 2015, but was a reserve after being slowed by a hamstring pull. He re-signed with the Falcons and made the team as a reserve weak-side linebacker and special teamer. Weatherspoon finished with nine tackles against the Raiders in the 35-28 victory.
GAME PLAN: The no-huddle could quiet Saints fans. After the Falcons had success running an up-tempo, no-huddle attack for the second time in two games, coach Dan Quinn said he still believes the strategy is most effective in small doses and in specific situations. The Falcons had success operating without a huddle in both halves of their 35-28 victory at the Raiders on Sunday. They also scored a touchdown using the strategy in the second half of their 31-24 defeat to the Buccaneers in Week 1. Quinn said the Falcons used the no-huddle attack on about 25 percent of their plays. He said it was the right approach to use against the Raiders to keep them off-balance and exploit what he considers to be his team's excellent conditioning. Quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have said that using the no-huddle makes it more difficult for the Falcons to execute their zone running game. Quinn said they were able to run the ball in the no-huddle against the Raiders because they still had Ryan under center.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Falcons WR Julio Jones, who had his first 100-yard game of the season last week, vs. Saints CBs Sterling Moore and P.J. Williams, who'll both see time on Jones: Jones has two touchdown catches of 21 and 25 yards. For some bizarre reason, Jones has not been used by the Falcons when they are inside the opposition's red zone. That may explain why the team is only 4 of 10 on their visits inside the opposition's 20-yard line. Williams suffered a concussion and was carted off the field last week. The Saints are optimistic that he'll be ready to play.
--Falcons CB Desmond Trufant, who has one interception and two pass breakups, vs. Saints WR Brandin Cooks, who has a 98-yard touchdown reception and two touchdowns: The Falcons matched Trufant with Oakland's Amari Cooper last week and he held him to five catches for 71 yards. Most of them were wide receiver screens to the outside. The speedy Cooks is a dangerous deep threat who averages 16.2 yards per catch. He had seven catches on nine targets for 69 yards in Week 2 as the Saints used their three-receiver set on 45 of the 59 plays.