Kazee, Neal enjoying journey together with Steelers

In 2017, the Atlanta Falcons selected safety Keanu Neal out of the University of Florida with the 17th pick in the NFL Draft.

The following year, they used a fifth-round pick on another safety, former San Diego State star Damontae Kazee, kicking off a relationship that has spanned the better part of six NFL seasons and taken them to three NFL teams.

From Atlanta to Dallas and now with the Steelers, Neal and Kazee have logged a lot of plays and many more miles in the NFL together. And it's that bond they have formed that is paying dividends for the Steelers in 2023.

Being together on the same team once happens all the time. Doing so twice at different stops is a little more rare. Playing together for three different teams? That's almost unheard of.

"As long as we keep going, we're happy," Kazee said. "It's year seven for me, year eight for him. We're blessed to keep going."

The Steelers added Kazee in free agency before the 2022 season, then brought in Neal prior to the 2023 season to help bolster their defensive backfield. And it's been the addition of that duo that has helped free up All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick to do more in their defensive backfield this season.

The Steelers have used the multi-talented Fitzpatrick all over the field in recent years, but that has ramped up even more in 2023, as he's seen 172 defensive snaps at free safety, 118 in the slot and 85 in the box. He's even seen 17 snaps essentially as an outside cornerback, freed up by the additions of Neal and Kazee that allow him to do all of those things without leaving the Steelers exposed on the back end of the defense.

They've made an impact on the Steelers' 5-3 start to this season.

Neal has 42 tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass defensed in the team's eight games this season, while Kazee has 32 tackles, an interception and two fumble recoveries.

"I think we play off each other really well," said Neal. "It gives us all opportunities to do different things in the system, which is always good. It gives Minkah the opportunity to do different things, which is his skillset. He has a corner background. He's a skilled player. Having him do different things, putting him in position to make plays is beneficial for us."

It also makes things beneficial for the Steelers for those times when they don't have Fitzpatrick available, which was the case in Thursday night's 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans.

With Fitzpatrick out because of a hamstring injury suffered in last Sunday's loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Steelers had to lean on the talents of Kazee and Neal even more. Kazee played 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps, while Neal played 89 percent as the duo combined for 11 total tackles.

It was nothing new for two players who have a long history together.

"That's my boy. I remember him calling me up in the offseason, saying he'd been talking to them here," Kazee said of Neal. "I gave him some key notes about the base defense, about where he's going to fit in at, how they really help you here. He made a good decision."

Having a friendly face in the locker room with a new team can be helpful. Having one who also happens to play the same position is extremely beneficial.

"It's cool. That chemistry is big," Neal said. "Going to a new scheme, having a familiar face, somebody you played with, that you understand, that you've been to battle with for a good while, it definitely helps you when you're out on the field with him."

Kazee had joined the Steelers as a free agent before the 2022 season after serving as the starting free safety in Dallas in 2021. His addition gave the Steelers a player who could play in the deep post if something happened to Fitzpatrick or the team wanted to utilize a three-safety look to allow Fitzpatrick to do some different things.

But he suffered a broken arm in the preseason that limited him to eight games, three of which were starts. Still, the Steelers liked that three-safety look at what it afforded them the option to do with Fitzpatrick that when they were building their roster for the 2023 season, they added Neal to replace veteran Terrell Edmunds.

While Kazee had spent the 2022 season with the Steelers, Neal played 17 games, including eight starts, with Tampa Bay after both had been with Dallas in 2021.

It was with the Cowboys that Neal, listed at 6-foot, 211 pounds, transitioned to playing dime linebacker under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, his former head coach with the Falcons.

"I had options, but I chose to follow Coach Quinn, to really stay with him and be around him, the respect I have for him," Neal said of free agency in 2021 and his decision to shift to linebacker, where he appeared in 14 games and made five starts for the Cowboys.

"It wasn't a terrible transition, the opportunity was there. But it wasn't an opportunity that was my only chance to get on the field to play dime. It was more so a choice."

It also kept him playing with Kazee. The two signed with the Cowboys within a couple of weeks of each other and staying with Quinn, who had been hired by Dallas earlier that offseason following the end of his tenure as head coach of the Falcons.

When the Steelers had an opportunity to bring that duo back together this past offseason, it just made sense.

"Those guys play well together," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "I think like anything, when you have new guys, it's always fitting into the new system, and how does the new system compare to the old system, so you don't get confused and do some different things. But those guys have been adapting well. Keanu, it's his first year, and obviously Kazee has been in it. I'm excited about how those guys are looking."

One of the reasons it works so well is because in addition to Neal having played some linebacker, he and Kazee have spent time playing both free and strong safety.

Their abilities allow them to do a number of different things.

"I don't think there's a difference between free safety and strong," Kazee said. "You've got to make tackles. You've got to cover. You've got to play your zone area.

"(Neal) hits like a linebacker. I don't think he plays like a linebacker. He's very smart."

And they're gaining an even better feel with how to mesh with the many skill sets of Fitzpatrick on a weekly basis.

"I know how he plays. I know the ins and outs with him," Kazee said of playing with Neal. "We've got a good feel with Minkah now. It's pretty good now."