Chad Clifton has protected the blind side for Green Bay Packers quarterbacks since being a second-round pick in 2000. Last season, he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and helped the Packers win the Super Bowl.
But he’ll have something to prove on Sunday, when he makes his long-awaited return against Detroit.
Clifton has been out since sustaining a hamstring injury in Week 5 against Atlanta. In his place, while Marshall Newhouse hasn’t been perfect by any stretch, the Packers have obliterated the franchise record for points and Aaron Rodgers is rewriting the Packers’ record book and setting some league records in the process.
“I just want to come out and play to the best of my ability and hopefully I can help the team,” Clifton said after Thursday’s practice, his first time in pads since the injury on Oct. 9.
Clifton was sensational down the stretch last season, allowing just one sack and three quarterback hits in the final two regular-season games and four playoff games, according to Pro Football Focus. However, he’ll be in anything but midseason form against the Lions, or in the playoffs if the coaching staff goes with him over Newhouse.
“I feel pretty good out there as far as the rust level,” Clifton said. “I feel like my pass sets are pretty good. Maybe the first couple days last week I might have been a little rusty but it’s coming around.”
For years, Clifton has won at the line of scrimmage because of his uncanny ability to explode off the ball and mirror even the league’s top pass rushers. That ability seems to be there, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin indicated.
“His pass sets are one of the better ones that you see on tape when you watch film in this league. He seems to be moving well,” Philbin said.
Clifton said he was on schedule to return until his back “locked up” while lifting weights and stretching before the Dec. 4 game against the Giants. At that point, Clifton’s sense of urgency increased, knowing he was running out of time to help the team this season.
Barring a setback, Clifton will square off against Detroit’s capable veteran, Kyle VandenBosch. However many snaps he’s allowed to play against the Lions, it will be a critical test for a player who, by Philbin’s rough guess, has played about 10,000 game snaps in his career.
“Yeah, it’s very important going into the playoffs,” Clifton said. “You want to make a run and you want to make a stretch and you want to be playing your best football. It’s very important to get in there and get some game reps before that happens.”
Packers injury report
Out: WR Greg Jennings (knee). Did not participate: WR Randall Cobb (groin); RB James Starks (knee/ankle). Limited: RT Bryan Bulaga (knee); LT Chad Clifton (hamstring/back); TE Jermichael Finley (knee); LB Clay Matthews (ankle); DE Ryan Pickett (concussion); CB Charles Woodson (knee).
Bulaga took part in his first practice since suffering a knee sprain against Kansas City. McCarthy said he “looked good” but remains in doubt for Sunday. Finley also progressed to limited. “It’s a long season, first time going through the whole season coming off a major injury last year,” McCarthy said. “If he keeps progressing he’ll be limited again tomorrow. That’s our plan.”
Jennings has been ruled out but did a little work during a routes-on-air period in which receivers run routes and catch passes without being defended.
Lions injury report
Did not participate: S Louis Delmas (knee); DT Nick Fairley (foot); WR Calvin Johnson (Achilles); DT Corey Williams (hip). Limited: CB Aaron Berry (shoulder); CB Chris Houston (hand/knee); ; S Amari Spievey (knee); DE Willie Young (ankle). Full: DE Cliff Avril (back); RB Kevin Smith (ankle).
Lions coach Jim Schwartz called Johnson “day-to-day.”
— McCarthy, on playing to win but staying healthy: “The health aspect of your football team, you can’t dodge it. You have to go play games. You have 53 guys. People try to talk about this game like it’s the preseason, it’s not even in the same realm — you’re dealing with just from a numbers standpoint. It’s a professional regular-season football game, it’s played differently than preseason games. The Lions are playing something, we’re playing for something, we’re playing to sweep our division for the first time. Our 46 players need to play like they always have. You hope you’re blessed by the hand of God that no one gets hurt. Injuries are a part of the game, and hopefully we can avoid them this week.”
— Erik Walden remains the starter at right outside linebacker, but like last week, the Packers will shuttle players in and out of that spot in hopes of finding a winning combination for the playoffs.
— If Cobb can’t play, either Tramon Williams or Jordy Nelson will return punts. Nelson and Pat Lee are among the options on kickoffs.
— Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, on quarterback Matthew Stafford playing in the cold — the forecast is for 32 degrees, 24 mph winds and a few snow showers, according to Weather.com. “It is probably as cold a game as he has ever played in but he looks at it as a fun challenge.”
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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.