Over the past four seasons, the Green Bay Packers had intercepted 103 passes – 17 more than any team in the league.
This season, the Packers have just three interceptions. Only the Jets have fewer with two. So, the anticipated return of cornerback Casey Hayward, who missed the first six games of the season with an injured hamstring, could add a much-needed playmaker to a defense that’s allowed just 39 points during a three-game winning streak.
“Casey Hayward has excellent ball skills,” said coach Mike McCarthy, who listed Hayward as probable for Sunday night’s game at NFC North rival Minnesota. “When it comes to route recognition, jumping routes and things like that, for a young player, he does it very well. We do need a spark.”
It’s been a frustrating season for Hayward, who was selected to the NFL’s All-Rookie team after leading all first-year players and finishing fifth overall with six interceptions last season. Hayward was out at the start of training camp with a hamstring injury sustained during his offseason training. He came back briefly in training camp, only to aggravate the injury during the Aug. 23 preseason game against Seattle.
This time, the Packers have brought Hayward along slowly. Even though he had been declared out for the Oct. 6 game against Detroit, Hayward practiced a little on the Thursday before the matchup. Two weeks ago, leading to the Oct. 13 game against Baltimore, Hayward was limited participation at the Thursday and Friday practices before being one of the inactives. Last week, he was limited at all three practices but was an inactive against Cleveland. This week, Hayward was a full participant all three days.
“Last time, I felt good coming back and I came back as soon as I felt good,” Hayward said. “This time, I’ve been feeling good for a couple weeks. Hopefully this time, we hit it on the head and we don’t have any setbacks.”
While playing-time decisions hadn’t been made, it’s likely the team will maintain its cautious approach and limit Hayward’s snaps on the Vikings’ FieldTurf surface.
“We’ll be anxious to see him get back in there,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s had a good week of practice. It’s been a long time since he’s been out there so it’ll be a gradual progression with Casey. But it’s nice to have him back because he brings ball skills and the ability to make plays.”
That playmaking ability has been missed. He picked off a pass in his one and only preseason game. In his absence, Davon House and Sam Shields have the secondary’s only interceptions through the team’s first six games.
“I hope I can hit the ground rolling,” Hayward said. ‘Whenever I get my opportunity to get out there, hopefully I can go out there and make plays and be an impact player for this defense.”
The Packers got some more good news on Friday with outside linebacker Nick Perry returning to practice. He had been out since sustaining an injured foot on a sack just before halftime of the Baltimore game.
Perry, who is listed as questionable, would bolster a unit that got by with just Mike Neal and rookies Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba against the Browns.
“He looked OK,” McCarthy said. “Nick was in a very limited role today. Didn’t want to overdo it. So, we’ll see how feels and hopefully get ready for Sunday night.”
Meanwhile, tight end Jermichael Finley was released from a local hospital on Thursday and was at the stadium on Friday morning.
“He looks good,” McCarthy said. “Looked like a dang movie star walking in there with sunglasses. It was good to see him. Big smile on his face. It’s great to have him back in the building. My understanding is they will continue to do more tests. That information is being sent to the specialist and then we’ll have to make a decision … at a certain time.”
Added Andrew Quarless, a close friend and fellow tight end: “It’s a great thing to hear. I’ve been getting updated every day about how he’s been doing. It’s definitely good to get back to regular life. That’s what it’s about.”
Packers injury report
Out: TE Jermichael Finley (knee), OLB Clay Matthews (thumb), TE Ryan Taylor (knee). Doubtful: WR James Jones (knee). Questionable: ILB Brad Jones (hamstring), OLB Nick Perry (foot). Probable: CB Jarrett Bush (hamstring), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), S Jerron McMillian (not injury related), TE Ryan Taylor (knee).
Vikings injury report
Out: RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), TE Rhett Ellison (ankle), QB Josh Freeman (concussion), WR Rodney Smith (hip). Questionable: DT Fred Evans (knee), S Jamarca Sanford (ankle). Probable: DE Jared Allen (ankle), DT Sharrif Floyd (back), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle), T Matt Kalil (back), RB Adrian Peterson (hamstring), K Blair Walsh (hamstring), DT Kevin Williams (knee).
-- With Freeman out, Christian Ponder will start at quarterback. “Early in the week, we thought it was going to be Freeman and then, I guess it was Wednesday on the practice field, someone walked up to me and told me that Ponder was going to start,” Capers said. “Obviously, it does affect your game plan a little bit, but we’ve certainly gone against Ponder so we know what kind of quarterback he is. He’s a very good athlete, gives them some versatility in terms of his ability to bootleg and throw the ball outside the pocket. Has a strong arm. You combine his ability to move along with Peterson running the football, that creates a big challenge.”
-- Browns safety Tashaun Gipson was not fined for his hit on Finley, the league said. Browns linebacker Eric Martin was fined $7,875 for his unnecessary-roughness penalty on Quarless.
-- Without Finley, Jones and Randall Cobb, only Jordy Nelson remains from the Packers’ explosive early-season passing attack. “Honestly, I have no idea (what the Vikings will do against him), and it makes it a little more difficult that way,” Nelson said. “I’m not used to it, but when it comes down to it, it will be football. There’s multiple ways they could go about it, we’ll have to adjust.”
-- The team announced the next phase of Atrium construction. The Packers Hall of Fame will be closed beginning Nov. 18, with the Packers Pro Shop eventually expanding into that space. The new Hall of Fame is not scheduled to open until April 2015. In the interim, some of the Hall of Fame’s memorabilia will be displayed at the Neville Public Museum. Meanwhile, the new Pro Shop is scheduled to open in July. Curly’s Pub will remain open during most of the construction period, with a brief closure beginning in February 2015. The new restaurant will open in April 2015 in its new location on the first floor of the Atrium. Curly’s Pub will have some modifications, however, beginning Dec. 2 with the closure of the games area and a subsequent closure of a section of the pub upon the conclusion of the 2013 season.
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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.