When NFL teams make late-season runs, they often get help from a player who for whatever reason wasn’t playing a lot or playing as well early in the season as late.
In 2010, for instance, Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji was sometimes dominant in the season’s stretch and playoffs after an OK first half of the year.
This year, the Packers are hoping defensive lineman Mike Neal can stay healthy enough to give their pass rush an extra edge in the postseason. Neal was suspended the first four games this year because he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and more recently he missed the Packers’ Dec. 9 game against Detroit because of a shoulder injury.
But in his return last week against Chicago, Neal appeared fresh and had 1 ½ sacks in only 19 snaps.
“I think Mike could make a huge difference,” Raji said this week. “You get him matched up inside, a lot of guards can’t handle – he’s fast-twitch, a lot of times guards can’t handle fast-twitch guys inside. Then certain packages you can line him up outside, you can do so much. And in (the base 3-4), he can play (end).”
Neal has played mostly as an inside rusher in the Packers’ nickel and dime personnel, though he’s played some end in the 3-4, depending on injuries. The biggest question is whether he can stay healthy enough to stay on the field and play well. He played in only two games his rookie season, which ended because of a shoulder injury, and last year had a knee injury that kept him out of nine games and limited his performance in the seven he played.
“Mike’s almost too lean for the position,” Raji said. “He gets nicked up because he’s so lean. A lot of times with D-lineman, scouts say they like little bigger guys because they can absorb hits. But when Mike’s healthy, his combination of speed and power is unmatched. The way we use him really gives him a chance to excel.”