New injuries: C Evan Dietrich-Smith (toe).
Did not participate: WR Charles Johnson (knee), S Sean Richardson (neck), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), CB Tramon Williams (knee), OL J.C. Tretter (ankle), OL Derek Sherrod (leg), TE Andrew Quarless (quad), WR Jordy Nelson (knee), DL Datone Jones (ankle), DL Jerel Worthy (knee), OL Bryan Bulaga (knee), WR Randall Cobb (bicep).
Returned: OL Andrew Datko (concussion), RB James Starks (illness).
Since Mike Neal began standing up as an outside linebacker during the Green Bay Packers’ offseason program, it’s been difficult to define the 6-foot-3, 275-pound athlete.
On Thursday, however, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene might have found the word that sums up exactly what the Packers are expecting from their quasi defensive lineman/linebacker:
Don’t bother looking for the word in a dictionary. You won’t find it, but the excitement behind Greene’s words supersedes any errors in articulation.
Coming off the healthiest and most productive of his three NFL seasons, the 26-year-old Neal put together his most impressive practice of camp on Wednesday and appears to be ready to make his preseason debut against St. Louis on Saturday.
When considering the potential mismatches that could result for opposing offenses, his new co-position coach is fired up about the possibilities.
“He brings a lot of tools to the fight,” Greene said. “His power and speed and explosibility are (some) of them. Clay (Matthews) brings that same kind of stuff to it. It’s just Mike weighs a little bit more with it.”
The Packers still plan to incorporate Neal on the defensive line. He continues to line up as an inside pass-rusher in the nickel and dime sub-packages, but the potential of having Matthews and Neal in the same positional room is what seems to make Greene salivate.
Although the Packers scaled down Thursday’s practice with a helmet-only session, the Packers got a good look at Neal on Wednesday when he dominated running backs in the pass-protection drills, including the group’s heaviest member, 250-pound fullback John Kuhn.
“I think it just best suits me. I don’t think I’m a bad run player as a defensive end, but I think using my athleticism is probably the biggest thing,” Neal said. “It just puts me in a better role to be able to use my athleticism. I think the learning part of it is what they wanted me to learn so I can put myself in those positions.”
After working back from the abdominal injury that landed him on the physically unable to perform list for the first 10 practices of camp, Neal has shown quickness and the ability to drop into coverage when called upon in team drills, a key in the team’s fire-zone packages, according to Greene.
He’s still far from a finished product, but the potential to free up Matthews, Nick Perry and other pass-rushers in various formations can both spur defensive creativity and keep an offense honest.
“His level of physicality is just tremendous and his ability to explode into blockers,” Greene said. “He’s looked fluid, smooth, good. His vision was correct and that says to me he’s getting it. He’s getting it.”
Hyde and House
Micah Hyde made a positive first impression on Packers coach Mike McCarthy dating to May’s rookie orientation.
During the three-day crash course to the NFL, McCarthy and the coaching staff wrangled up 21 players and had them run through kickoff and punt return drills regardless of experience level.
Hyde was one of them, and while he isn’t competing for the Packers’ return job, the fifth-round cornerback out of Iowa showed something to McCarthy that day.
“Just to see his ability to catch the ball on the run and do different things, hell, I was tempted to put him on offense,” McCarthy said. “I think he has that type of ball skill ability. He’s doing some really good things as a young player.”
Written off by some scouts for possessing average speed — he ran a 4.56-second time in the 40-yard dash — Hyde’s playmaking ability in practice shot him past third-year cornerback Davon House on the depth chart this week and lining up with the starting base defense across from Sam Shields.
For House, Saturday can’t come fast enough. Last Friday against Arizona, House admittedly had the worst game of his career, giving up three catches for 92 yards and a touchdown on 16 defensive snaps, including a pair of receptions of more than 30 yards to Andre Roberts and Charles Hawkins.
“You can’t let one play beat you twice. You have to be able to put it behind you, especially at the position we play,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “You can’t go with an emotional roller coaster in this game. If you have a good play, you can’t get too high. If you have a bad play, you can’t get too low.
“He’s had solid practices all camp. What happens on the field is what I want to see. I’ll be able to see that on Saturday. That’s when we know he’s responded or not.”
Ryan Pickett missed practice Tuesday because of a medical emergency involving his 1-year-old daughter, Phoebe.
Without going into specifics, the 33-year-old defensive lineman said everything is OK and he would be going back to the hospital after practice Thursday.
Pickett wasn’t sure whether it could be a long-term issue
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Pickett said. “Just know she’s all right, but they’re running more tests.”
■ Starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith missed practice with a toe injury and is uncertain for Saturday’s game. Second-year offensive lineman Greg Van Roten lined up in his spot with the first-team offense and would start if he can’t play against the Rams.
McCarthy also ruled out running back DuJuan Harris, who returned this week on a limited basis from a knee injury, but was hopeful rookie Eddie Lacy would be back after missing last week’s game with a hamstring injury.
“(Harris) is ready but we just feel, we just want to bring him back in limited fashion this week and he’ll be 100 percent go next week,” McCarthy said.
■ Cornerback Sam Shields disappeared near the end of practicem, causing some concern with Tramon Williams (knee) and Casey Hayward (hamstring) already out, but McCarthy said he was OK and dealing with an apparent gastrointestinal issue.
“It’s kind of funny, I shouldn’t say this in a press conference. I actually used the restroom after Sam, so I think he’s OK now,” McCarthy said.
■ McCarthy said he plans to use all four of his quarterbacks in similar fashion as last week’s opener against the Cardinals where Aaron Rodgers ran a series with the first-team offense before giving way to Graham Harrell, Vince Young and B.J. Coleman.
— Pete Dougherty contributed to this report.