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Packers defensive end Mike Neal's return remains in flux

Oct. 17, 2011
 
Mike Neal motions during Green Bay Packers training camp practice on Ray Nitschke Field on Aug. 24, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette

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Mike Neal remains in the Green Bay Packers’ plans this season, but the defensive end’s return is by no means imminent.

A source Monday said there’s no guarantee that the injured second-year pro, who has missed all but two games of his brief NFL career, will be able to contribute this season.

“That’s not what we’re planning,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m thinking after the bye he should be close. That’s how (team physician Dr.) Pat (McKenize) feels.”

The undefeated Packers (6-0) play at Minnesota on Sunday, but Neal has no chance to return this week. Next week is their bye, and McCarthy doesn’t usually practice that week. So the earliest Neal could return to the practice field would be Oct. 31. That would be seven weeks after he had surgery to remove loose chunks of cartilage in his left knee. Neal originally sustained the injury during an Aug. 16 training camp practice when he planted wrong during a non-contact drill, but he didn’t have the surgery until Sept. 13 after the knee didn’t respond to treatment and rehabilitation.

Neal would almost certainly need more than one week of practice before the Packers would consider playing him, so even the first game following the bye week — at San Diego on Nov. 6 — probably is out of the question. The Packers took a similar course of action with linebacker Frank Zombo, who practiced for two full weeks coming off a broken scapula before he was activated for Sunday’s game against St. Louis.

“Everybody responds differently to injuries,” McCarthy said. “I would hope he’d be back. We’re counting on him. If we would have felt (he couldn’t return) this far into it, we would have probably done something by now. He had surgery after Week 1, right? They said it would be about six weeks.”

The Packers were counting on Neal this season to inherit some of departed defensive end Cullen Jenkins’ snaps. Jenkins, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, had seven sacks in 11 regular-season games and two more sacks in the four postseason games last year.

With his size (6-foot-3, 294 pounds) and remarkable strength, Neal was expected to be a factor both against the run and the pass. He was viewed as a perfect line mate for B.J. Raji when defensive coordinator Dom Capers used his nickel package, which features only two linemen.

In the only two games he played last season, a total of 79 snaps, Neal was factor both against the run and the pass. In his debut against Detroit on Oct. 3, 2010, he hit Lions running back Jahvid Best behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble that Ryan Pickett recovered. A week later at Washington, Neal recorded a sack and five tackles but then aggravated an old shoulder injury, and his rookie season was over. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff.

The injuries have frustrated the former second-round pick from Purdue, and he has been eager to prove he’s not injury prone. Last month, he told reporters he was “looking real optimistically that after the bye week, I’ll be able to (play).”

“One thing I’ve learned is to go off of what the medical people say, and I’ve felt we probably wouldn’t have him until the bye week or after,” Capers said. “We’ll have to wait and see. They tell me that he’s making some progress.”

When — or if — Neal returns, his role likely would be limited for a while. McCarthy said he envisions Neal playing in some of the sub packages.

“It would be great to have Mike back,” McCarthy said. “He gives you pass rush. He’s someone that would be a starter in sub. Probably wouldn’t put him in the Okie (base defense) right away just because he’s coming off the injury. Mike’s an explosive guy, can definitely add more pass rush. That was his strength coming out of college. You can never have enough offensive or defensive linemen.”

This season, the Packers have 15 sacks but only four from defensive linemen. Jarius Wynn, who has inherited most of the snaps expected to go to Neal, has three sacks and Raji one.

“We’ll have to wait and see when he comes back where he is,” Capers said. “We certainly liked what we thought he could bring to the table from a strength and explosiveness standpoint. If he can come back healthy, that’ll certainly be a boost and can help us.”

rdemovsk@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.

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