Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal (96) celebrates after tackling Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush in the first quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
When the Green Bay Packers made the decision this week to start Mike Neal over Nick Perry at outside linebacker, this was the kind of response they were hoping for.
Neal finished with six tackles and a sack in his first start opposite Clay Matthews while Perry contributed five tackles off the bench with two sacks and a forced fumble on Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford late in Sunday’s 22-9 win at Lambeau Field.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, considering the Packers lost Matthews to a thumb injury after a 12-yard sack of Stafford at the end of the third quarter. He never returned.
If the thumb is broken, as many national reports suggest, that doesn’t mean Matthews would miss any or much game time.
In the recent past, the Packers have had defensive players such as Nick Barnett and Cullen Jenkins play through broken bones in their hands or wrists, though they were limited in their ability to use their hands because of the large padded cast protecting the injury.
Either way, Neal and Perry had probably their best games of the season after combining for only nine hurries and no sacks in the first three games of the season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I tried to get two,” said Neal with a smile. “I tried to get one from the inside and outside, but just to be able to get that sack as an outside linebacker just to show people I can provide a rush on the outside is definitely a big confidence-booster for me, and I have to try to keep that up.”
Both of Perry’s sacks came in the second half. He left briefly in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, but returned five plays later to hit Stafford’s arm and force a fumble.
Perry said the fact he wasn’t starting didn’t weigh too heavily on his mind, with his concern set more on registering his first sack a year after wrist surgery ended his rookie season.
“It really doesn’t matter,” Perry said. “We’re still getting reps and everybody is kind of getting reps out there on the field, so there’s no issue with that. Things happen. You just have to look forward to the game.”
The performance finally gave the Packers a glimpse of the production the organization has hoped for since taking him in the first round of the 2012 draft and beginning his conversion from playing 4-3 defensive end at Southern Cal.
“Everything you saw is everything he’s able to bring to the table,” Neal said. “I think he’ll keep escalating as a player. He’s very smart, very physical. He’s a great player, and I think you saw that today from him, and he’ll be able to continue to grow from there.”
Francois, Jones go down
Inside linebacker Robert Francois suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his right leg Sunday and most likely will be lost for the season.
A special-teams stalwart, Francois was called into action when Brad Jones exited in the first half with a hamstring injury. They were the first defensive snaps he’d seen since a 46-16 win over Oakland on Dec. 11, 2011.
Francois left near the end of the third quarter and didn’t talk to the media in the locker room after the game, but he was on crutches with his right foot in a boot.
“I feel terrible about Robert’s situation. He was the first one to step up,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Jones was off to a good start with three tackles (two for a loss) and a sack of Stafford before the hamstring flared up in the first half. He missed the Packers’ final preseason game in August with the same injury.
That leaves Jamari Lattimore and rookie Sam Barrington as the remaining inside linebackers on the roster with A.J. Hawk filling in as the dime inside linebacker, the individual responsible for calling in plays from the sideline.
“We work on that stuff all week,” said Hawk, who finished with a team-high nine tackles. “We rotate everybody in since the start of April at the start of OTAs. Everybody knows all the positions. It’s just kind getting a feel for each guy on game day of how they like to communicate or what they like to do.”
On a day when the Packers’ rushing offense averaged 5.5 yards on 33 carries, rookie running back Johnathan Franklin was on the sideline after fumbling a second-quarter carry.
The fumble occurred during a first-and-10 play from the Packers’ 19-yard line and was his second fumble in his last four carries going back to losing the ball on a fourth-and-1 play against Cincinnati two weeks ago that wound up being returned for the game-winning score.
Franklin continued to handle kickoff return duties — a pair of touchbacks — but didn’t return to the backfield in finishing with three carries for 1 yard.
“That was an opportunity and you have to take advantage of them, but all I can do is take a step,” Franklin said. “You just can’t do that. We were backed up. It was important. The game was close. The score was close.”
Micah Hyde handled punt returns in the middle portion of the field with two for 7 yards. Cobb handled punts inside the 20-yard line and also had two returns for 7 yards.
■ Packers safety Morgan Burnett returned from his hamstring injury Sunday and made five tackles and one pass deflection.
The most notable change was with his helmet. After buzzing his dreads during the bye week, Burnett had to be fitted for a new one, but his presence was felt by the secondary regardless.
“We went the first three weeks without Morgan, probably one of the top three players in our defense and captain of our secondary,” cornerback Davon House said. “If we all can stay healthy, I don’t see why we’re not a top-10 defense in the league. We just have to go out there and show it.”
■ The Packers’ inactive players were cornerback Casey Hayward (hamstring), offensive lineman Greg Van Roten (foot), running back James Starks (knee), linebacker Nate Palmer, tight end Brandon Bostick and defensive linemen C.J. Wilson and Josh Boyd.
■ When Jones exited, Hawk took his backup “speaker” helmet to communicate with the sideline before having it installed in his original one, which popped off three times during the game.
“I don’t like putting air in my helmet,” Hawk said. “I wear it pretty loose, so it kept coming off all day today; a couple times when my own teammates hit me in the back of the head. I don’t plan on changing it, though. It feels too comfortable.”
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