Mike Neal looks the same — big.
Mike Neal says he’s healthy — just a little sore.
And the Packers defensive end doubled his snaps to 30 in his second game back from a knee injury that kept him inactive for the first 10 weeks of the season.
So where’s the statistical production? That’s the prevailing question from those who expected an improved pass rush once the 2010 second-round pick was healthy and ready to replace free-agent departure Cullen Jenkins.
The question may or may not be premature considering Neal has a total of 45 snaps played in 2011. But none of that matters to Neal, who knows how close he was to playing zero snaps and spending a second consecutive NFL year on injured reserve.
“Truth be told, my goal is to be able to just play,” Neal said. “I’m telling you, when I hurt myself and then when we found out what was really wrong — the amount of time that they said I could miss was significant to the point I could have ended up on IR.
“For me personally, just to be able to get in here and get in the mix — I don’t care about tackles, I don’t care about sacks … Just to be able to play is enough. I’m doing that now. Maybe the sacks and tackles will come my way, but just for me to play right now is satisfying to me.”
The early diagnosis for Neal was a sublexed kneecap, but that wasn’t accurate. Some of the cartilage had been knocked off the trochlear groove — the concave surface where the kneecap makes contact with the femur. Arthroscopic surgery was performed during Week 2. The recovery varied from 6-8 weeks to 8-12 weeks to a second stint on injured reserve.
“That cartilage, sometimes, don’t grow back,” Neal said. “They have to do all kinds of surgeries. Go in there and drill holes in your bone to try to get it to bleed to make it scab over. That surgery right there is a whole year where you can’t do anything. That was the last thing we were looking at.
“If it don’t grow back on it’s own or you can’t play without pain, then you’re going to have to have surgery.”
Coach Mike McCarthy said in October he expected Neal to “definitely add more pass rush” upon his return. Neal has been in the right package — mostly nickel with a few base snaps. Still, stats or not, there hasn’t been an obvious change in the Packers’ front-line push the last two games.
“I think Mike is exactly where you think he is after 10 days or two weeks of preparation,” McCarthy said Thursday. “In a lot of ways when you break down his snaps he’s played in the game, he probably is going into this third or fourth week of preseason if you want to be realistic with all the padded work Mike has missed.
“Just the way his body is responding and getting back into the work load is an adjustment and rightfully so. I feel good about A) he’s back on the field and B) the effort he’s putting in, the extra effort, and I believe he’ll get back to the way he was last year.”
General manager Ted Thompson said, “Yeah, we’re glad to have him back. He had to go through quite an ordeal with the injury and he’s fought his way back. I was watching him at practice today. He looks pretty frisky out there, moving around. We’re looking for him to play a little bit more and more every week.”
Neal’s return has been highly anticipated due to his draft position, a 5-tackle, 1-sack performance in Washington last season and Jenkins’ signing with the Eagles. It doesn’t help that Jenkins has 5½ sacks, which would lead the Packers, in 2011. Neal, however, isn’t the only defender with sagging numbers. The same “what’s wrong” question has been asked of Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji. Similar explanations have been given — the scheme calls for much more than simply a pinned-ear-back pass rush.
“He’s getting a lot of push up the middle,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “He’s back right on time, right when we need him. We needed the extra push up the middle to help B.J. out and J-Dub (Jarius Wynn). He’s provided it.
“That’s how this defense works. Only thing we do is do our job. Our numbers are not going to be great all the time, but this team knows how to win. We know how to get turnovers and how to keep teams out of the end zone when we need to. Our stats are not the same as it was last year. At the same time, our record is better than it was last year. … Guys like Mike getting an extra push helps us hold a team like Detroit to 15 points.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @kareemcopeland