The Green Bay Packers seem to think Mike Neal won’t end up on injured reserve, but it looks like he’ll miss at the least a good portion of the season.
Neal had surgery Tuesday on his injured left knee, and though coach Mike McCarthy didn’t reveal any details, he said Neal will be out a “significant number of weeks.” That suggests Neal could be out close to a couple of months, maybe even more.
“Dr. (Pat) McKenzie feels very good about what he saw (in surgery),” McCarthy said, “and it’ll take Mike some time to rehab.”
The surgery sets back the Packers’ defensive plans and raises issues about Neal’s long-term prospects because of his accumulating injury history.
The Packers were looking for the second-round pick from last year’s draft to play a crucial role as an inside rusher on passing downs as replacement for departed free-agent Cullen Jenkins. For the two weeks Neal practiced in training camp, he flashed the same abilities that excited the Packers in the two games he played last season before a severe shoulder injury ended his rookie year.
“I was disappointed, obviously,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said of his reaction to Neal’s surgery. “Mike is a special athlete. For as big as he is, he’s very athletic too, and that only helps me too, to have a guy similar to Cullen last year, who helped me out, that people have to take notice of his pass rushing ability.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating. You want him back as soon as possible. I do, personally, as well as this team. But we’ve still got some guys that can make some plays. (Defensive end) Jarius Wynn did a good job last week, (defensive end Ryan Pickett) played a number of plays, I think 30-plus snaps, and B.J. (Raji, the nose tackle) played in all but a few (snaps). It puts more emphasis on them.”
The Packers also have to wonder whether Neal will hold up well enough physically to be a core player for the next few years. He missed the first three games last season because of an abdominal strain, then in his second game back sustained a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder that sidelined him the rest of the year.
That comes after a college career at Purdue in which he had surgery after each of his first three seasons (on a shoulder, toe and knee) before finishing his last two years surgery-free.
“It’s definitely discouraging (for Neal),” Raji said. “I know Mike, he’s going to do everything the right way, he’s a hard worker, he takes his job serious. Especially how he injured it, something that could have been avoided, pass-rush bag, it was pretty bizarre. It’s disheartening and I’m saddened for him. Hopefully he comes back at full tilt like he was in training camp. If he’s not, the guys here have to step up for him.”
Neal injured his knee on a freak play in training camp when he tripped while working on a pass-rushing move against a blocking dummy. Though he writhed on the ground in pain for a couple of minutes, the Packers thought it was more of a scare than a severe injury after the team’s medical staff evaluated him. He rehabilitated the knee for 2˝ weeks and returned to practice for last week’s opener, but was too sore after three days of practice to suit up against the Saints.
“Mike got all ready in the offseason, was in perfect shape, he really wanted to play,” Pickett said. “He just happened to have something bad happen to him in camp doing a freak thing. It was bizarre. But the thing we’re trying to preach is, it’s a long season, get healthy and come back and help us.”
Neal’s surgery and possibility for returning this year suggests his injury is cartilage related — the only ligament that’s surgically repaired is the anterior cruciate, which would have required a season-ending operation. If it is a cartilage injury, his recovery will depend on whether the doctors repaired or removed the damaged cartilage, as well as whether the surrounding bones and tissues were damaged.
Last year, for instance, tight end Jermichael Finley sustained torn cartilage in his knee on Oct. 10 at Washington. During his surgery the following week, doctors discovered they could repair rather than simply remove the torn cartilage. The repair was better for Finley’s knee long term but also meant a longer recovery, anywhere from eight to 14 weeks. The Packers put him on injured reserve, which they didn’t do with Neal.
“I don’t think (Neal) is an IR situation,” McCarthy said.
Either way, with Neal out for an extended time, the Packers will have to lean even more heavily on Raji for their inside pass rush and give more playing time to backup defensive ends Wynn, a sixth-round draft pick in 2009; C.J. Wilson, a seventh-round pick last year; and Howard Green, who is mainly a run stopper.
“Do we miss Mike? Absolutely,” Pickett said. “When he comes back he isn’t going to do anything but make us better. At the same time we have other guys that fill in and do a great job.”
Wynn now is the Packers’ second-best interior rusher, behind Raji, and figures to take most or all of the snaps alongside Raji on passing downs. Wynn played about 30 snaps in that role last week against New Orleans. He followed up an improved performance in training camp with the best game of his career (one sack, a quarterback hit, four tackles).
“(Wynn) is a different player, he worked extra hard this offseason,” Pickett said. “His skills, he came back a different player. He had a big jump from his second to third year. He’s real comfortable out there, not as nervous as he was before. He feels like he belongs.”
The Packers also probably will push Raji to his limit while Neal is out, though perhaps on some early downs they’ll play Pickett and Howard Green together to give Raji some rest. Raji played all but a handful of snaps against the Saints and said he made sure he was in good shape going into the season so defensive line coach Mike Trgovac wouldn’t take him out occasionally on passing downs.
“We can only worry about so much,” Raji said of losing Neal. “Obviously everybody would love to have Mike out there. But the truth on that is he’s not going to be out there, so you have to go outside and practice and work with the guys we have. Get ready to play a little bit more, in my case.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.