The Green Bay Packers didn’t move Mike Neal to outside linebacker this offseason with the intention of him rushing every down in a two-point stance.
However, that’s very well what they might have to do following the realization that Nick Perry will be out indefinitely after reportedly breaking his foot during a sack in Sunday’s 19-17 over Baltimore.
Perry’s injury comes after Clay Matthews was already ruled out for the remainder of the month after breaking his thumb in a recent game against Detroit, leaving the Packers with Neal and rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer as their only options at outside linebacker for the moment.
“(Neal) played the most plays that he’s played (on Sunday). I think it was in the 50s,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Yeah, he’s our veteran guy now.”
Although Perry briefly returned in the second half, Neal wound up playing 52 of the team’s 66 defensive snaps, lining up entirely at outside linebacker for the first time in his four-year career.
Originally conceived as a way to expand Neal’s role past simply the defensive line, it’s turned into a necessary safety valve a little more than one month into the season.
There’s a chance the 6-foot-3, 275-pound converted defensive lineman will be asked to line up at right outside linebacker this Sunday against Cleveland and face one of the best tackles in the game in six-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas.
“I think Mike Neal’s role is where it was when the season started,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s playing a little more than I probably thought he would at this time, because our defensive line is clearly one of our strengths as a football team as far as depth. I think that’s evident in how many d-linemen we keep on our roster. Mike to me has always been a prime time player as far as when we get in there, we look at packages and try to create opportunities.”
Neal has 11 tackles, a sack and one interception in five games this season, but the Packers will also be counting on Mulumba and Palmer to play beyond their years.
Mulumba had a good start with four tackles on 39 defensive snaps behind Neal and Perry.
Palmer saw his first seven defensive snaps though he didn’t record a stat.
The onus won’t simply be on the outside linebackers. Capers likely will need to find more ways to free up A.J. Hawk like he did Sunday when the eighth-year inside linebacker had a career day with 10 tackles (five for loss) and three sacks.
“You never know who’s going to step up,” Capers said. “Clay has normally been our bell cow in those areas. It was nice to see a veteran guy like A.J. step up and have one of his best games. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”