Maybe it’s overly optimistic to be counting on a player who’s played in two of a possible 23 regular-season games in his career, but the Green Bay Packers might get a late-season spark from defensive end Mike Neal.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Wednesday said Neal is completing rehab on his surgically repaired left knee and might return to practice in a limited fashion next week.
"I feel good,” Neal said. “I've been running around, moving around and I feel good. But my timetable is, we don't know. Every week I feel 10 times better than I did the week before. But you just don't know. You don't know what's going to happen within a week or the next week, but hopefully I can come back to the field as soon as possible."
Neal injured the knee during a noncontact drill early in training camp. After about a month of rehab couldn’t get him back on the field, the medical staff opted for surgery, with several pieces of loose cartilage that were missed by MRIs being removed.
Clearly, the Packers will be in no hurry to get last year’s second-round pick onto the playing field. Neal, who missed time early last season with an abdominal injury, played in Week 4 against Detroit and Week 5 against Washington. He sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in the Redskins game on Oct. 10. So, almost 13 months removed from his last game action, the Packers will want Neal to go through at least two or three weeks of practice before plugging him into the mix on gamedays.
Neal has been running and cutting. The final step, he said, was to regain strength in his left leg — and his left quadriceps, in particular.
“My quad went from super-ginormous to looking like a baby leg,” the powerful Neal said. “It looks like I’ve got one of the trainer’s legs. Just trying to get those areas around it strengthened up so it can take some of the pressure off my knee. When your leg’s that small, your leg’s trying to compensate in a whole bunch of areas. Right now, it’s compensating in an area which is my knee, so if I can get those areas around it stronger, I’ll be fine.”
The Packers were counting on him to replace much of the pass rush that Cullen Jenkins took with him to Philadelphia. Neal’s replacement in the starting lineup, Jarius Wynn, has three sacks but none in the last four games. B.J. Raji has two sacks and broke a four-game stretch without a sack against Minnesota.
“It's hard, period, when you haven't played football in two years,” Neal said. “I wasn't drafted to sit on the bench. So, that's frustrating. But we do what we can do within our defense to get pressure on the quarterback. We take a lot of flak for not getting to the quarterback. OK, that's fine. But we're still winning football games and at the end of the day, that's all that matters."
Packers injury report
Out — LT Chad Clifton (hamstring/knee); DE Mike Neal (knee). Limited participation — OLB Clay Matthews (quad); G Josh Sitton (knee). Full participation — S Morgan Burnett (hand); OLB Jamari Lattimore (shoulder); CB Sam Shields (concussion); OLB Frank Zombo (knee).
McCarthy said Clifton is “multiple weeks away” from returning to practice.
Chargers injury report
Did not participate — DE Luis Castillo (tibia); RB Curtis Brinkley (concussion); G Kris Dielman (concussion); LB Na’il Diggs (knee); WR Malcom Floyd (hip); G Tyronne Green (hand); WR Vincent Jackson (hamstring); RB Ryan Matthews (groin); LB Shaun Phillips (foot). Full — Michael Tolbert (hamstring).
— McCarthy said he fell asleep watching the Chargers’ game at Kansas City on Monday night. “I was in here extremely early to watch it on the coaches tape. It’s a lot different watching the game on TV than it is in a room all by yourself early in the morning with a cup of coffee. You really like to pay attention to those division games, especially playing Kansas City for the second time, having the opportunity to watch the Kansas City game in San Diego and then watching the Monday night game, just to see how each team reacts to the concepts, schemes, matchups that they went through the first competition to the second competition. San Diego’s a very good football team, very well coached, so this will be a big challenge, especially going into their stadium after a tough loss on the road to Kansas City.”
— Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has posted seven consecutive games with passer ratings of 110-plus and leads the league with 20 touchdowns against three interceptions. Can he play better? "Yeah, I think so. I think so,” he said. “This offseason, one of my goals was to decrease the space between a good game and a poor game. I'm looking forward to doing that and improving on that. I just feel like for 60 minutes, we all can play a little bit more consistently."
— Rodgers, the five receivers and tight end Jermichael Finley are on the cover of the new Sports Illustrated. The photo shoot was done before the Minnesota game. “Josh Sitton and some of the linemen were a little upset that we couldn't get those guys in,” Rodgers joked. “I told them the frame was a little bit small for that. But I'm glad that they put seven of us on there, and there's a lot more guys who are contributors on this team. But it's good for those guys to be recognized, and it's fun to share the spotlight.”
— Rodgers, center Scott Wells and Matthews made Sports Illustrated’s midseason All-Pro team that was put togther by Peter King. King has New England beating Green Bay in the Super Bowl.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.