Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal (96) during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Sunday, July 31, 2011. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers know they aren’t going to replace what departed free agent defensive end Cullen Jenkins gave them last season – nine sacks, including the postseason – with one person.
But there is one key player they know they need to take on a good chunk of the workload.
That’s why it was so good for them to see Mike Neal, the second-year defensive end, back on the field doing team 11-on-11 drills Thursday night for the first time since he messed up his shoulder Oct. 10 at Washington. The presence of big No. 96 was noticeable during one of the first team periods of the night, a run-heavy drill in which defensive coordinator Dom Capers used his “Okie,” or base, personnel. There was Neal on the three-man front line with B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett.
Neal had a strong showing in his rookie training camp last summer but then was sidelined the first three weeks of the regular season because of an abdominal strain he sustained late in the preseason. He finally debuted in Week 4 against Detroit and forced a fumble. The next week against the Redskins he played nearly the entire game – 53 snaps to be exact – and had five tackles and a sack until he hurt his shoulder.
Those two performances haven’t slipped far from the minds the Packers’ coaches, who believe if Neal can stay on the field, he can make a Jenkins-like impact.
“I don’t want to make any predictions for him,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said after Thursday’s practice. “But we’re counting on him. We really need him to come through for us.”
Receivers say drops can be contagious.
If that’s the case, then it spread like an influenza epidemic on Thursday.
During one team period, there were drops on three out of four plays.
It seemingly began innocently enough when rookie Shaky Smithson dropped an out from Matt Flynn against coverage by Jarrett Bush. But on the next play, a ball thrown by Flynn ricocheted off a receiver’s hands and was intercepted by rookie cornerback Davon House. Two plays after that, the previously sure-handed rookie Randall Cobb dropped one along the sidelines.
Drops were a problem for them at times last season. None of Thursday’s drops was by a veteran player, but the Packers don’t want the problem spreading.
Did you notice?
Bush, who is off to a strong start in camp, had another good performance capped by a pass breakup on fourth down that allowed the No. 1 defense to stop the No. 1 offense at the 35-yard line in the two-minute drill. That came a day after the No. 1 defense got steamrolled in the two-minute drill, allowing the Aaron Rodgers-led offense to score a touchdown on just four plays. The No. 2 defense also stopped a two-minute drill directed by third-string quarterback Graham Harrell.
In his first practice with the Packers, free-agent linebacker K.C. Asiodu was on two No. 1 special teams units – kickoff return and punt return. Asiodu ranked third in special teams tackles for the St. Louis Rams in 2009.
In his first practice of camp, Spencer Havner worked exclusively at tight end. There has been talk of him returning to linebacker because of a lack of depth at the inside positions.
Running back James Starks isn’t going to give up the starting running back job to Ryan Grant easily. He showed some impressive force in running over rookie safety Anthony Bratton near the goal line in a team period.
Left tackle Chad Clifton, who almost never loses in the one-on-one pass blocking drill, got smoked on an outside move by linebacker Brad Jones. Clifton’s reps were again limited during team periods.
First-round pick Derek Sherrod had another up-and-down day, going 5-2 in one on ones, but had his best rep so far when he stopped a power move by Raji.