With the elder statesman on their defense calling the unit a “liability,” the undefeated Green Bay Packers could use a lift on that side of the ball as they kick off the second half of the NFL season.
Could oft-injured defensive end Mike Neal deliver it?
Neal has yet to play this season after suffering a knee injury in a training-camp practice on Aug. 16 but practiced on a limited basis for the first time since the injury on Thursday, doing mainly individual drills.
“(Neal) went through all the exercises and the things (the training staff) had set out for him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said afterward. “That’s good news. We’ll see how Mike is in the morning. But he’s off to a good start.”
The Packers don’t know how effective Neal, a 2010 second-round draft pick from Purdue who has missed 26 of a possible 28 games (including playoffs) as a pro because of injuries, will be. But at this point, it’s all hands on deck.
“I really have no expectations. If he comes in here and he’s not what we hope, then we can blame it on the time he missed. If he comes in and is great, we accept it with open arms,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “But there’s no, ‘Oh, man, we need you to be our knight in shining armor.’ Everybody’s got to pick up and play better, play harder and play smarter.”
Immediately after the injury, Neal said that he did not suffer any structural damage to the ACL, MCL or PCL and that he expected to play in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener. Instead, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Sept. 13 to remove loose cartilage after complaining not of pain in the knee but that the knee would lock up and swell.
While Neal, who was not in the Packers’ locker room during the daily media availability period, may not be cleared to play in time for Monday night’s game against NFC North rival Minnesota at Lambeau Field, he could provide a late-season boost on defense similar to what then-rookie running back James Starks did for the offense last year.
Starks, who spent most of the season on the physically unable to perform list with a hamstring injury suffered in training camp last year, made his NFL debut with five games left in the 2010 regular season and sparked the offense’s running game, which had been virtually non-existent in the wake of starter Ryan Grant’s season-ending ankle injury in Week 1. Starks ran for 73 yards in his Dec. 5 debut against San Francisco, then gained 315 yards in the Packers’ four playoff games, including a 123-yard effort against Philadelphia in the NFC Wild Card round.
When veteran cornerback Charles Woodson called out the Packers’ 30th-ranked defense after last Sunday’s 45-38 victory in San Diego, saying the unit was a “liability” and intimating that the 8-0 Packers won’t repeat as Super Bowl champions without the defense improving, he pointed to the team’s pedestrian pass rush and suggested that star outside linebacker Clay Matthews needs more help.
Neal, if he can generate an interior pass rush alongside fellow lineman B.J. Raji, could provide that help. Matthews, who had 13.5 sacks last season, has three; Raji, who finished last season with 6.5 sacks, has two.
“Mike is definitely going to help. I mean, that’s what he does well – he rushes the passer,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “And he pushes the pocket. Even if he’s not going to get the quarterback, he’s going to push his man. He’s definitely going to give us a spark. I can’t wait for him to come back.
“I’m a run-stopper. I try to rush the passer, but I’m probably not going to be the best at it. I give my effort, but I’m not a pass rusher. (Getting Neal back), it’s going to help Clay, it’s going to help B.J., it’s going to help everybody. It’s going to help the team. He’s a player. We miss him. He’s definitely going to bring good pass rush to the table. He’s definitely going to make us better.”