Mike Neal doesn’t need to utter a word to Kevin Greene for the Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach to know his pupil is hurting.
A simple glance every now and then tells the story.
“The man lays it on the line,” Greene said. “I go, ‘How you feeling?’ and he just looks at me … I know he’s hurting with the deal, but he’s really pushing himself through it for his brothers.”
The 6-foot-3, 285-pound converted defensive lineman has been on the injury report for the better part of a month with an abdominal injury that’s occasionally held him out of practice. He’s probable to play through it this Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Coincidentally, Neal is also in the midst of the most impactful stretch of his four-year career with four sacks in the last five weeks, including a critical forced fumble in a 22-21 win over Atlanta two weeks ago.
Labeled as injury-prone by many during his first two years in the league, he’s played in 25 of a possible 26 games over the past two seasons (not counting the four-game suspension he underwent for violating NFL policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
This season, he has 36 tackles, five sacks and an interception after becoming Greene’s pet project in the offseason. The Packers initially planned to split him evenly as a linemen and linebacker, but Nick Perry’s battle with a broken foot has seen him play nearly all his snaps outside as of late.
“Have you seen him with his shirt off? He looks like he was supposed to be playing linebacker in the first place – he’s ripped up,” said defensive lineman C.J. Wilson, who was a 2010 rookie classmate of Neal. “He doesn’t have a d-line body, if you get what I’m saying. He was always a fast twitch guy. We came in together and he’s so much faster.
“I wish they had moved him out there a long time ago because it'd been amazing to see what he could’ve been and how he could’ve grown. It’s his first year at outside backer and look how good he did. He’s going to be a great player.”
Greene began noticing outside-linebacker potential in Neal during the 2011 season. That’s when he first started sending overtures in the direction of coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
During his 16-year playing career, Greene never remembers a one- or three-technique linemen making a switch to outside linebacker and jokes those initial requests about Neal “kind of just bounced off the wall.”
However, Greene kept pursuing the topic last season until McCarthy and Capers finally gave into the conversion last summer.
"I probably mentioned it last year in 2012 a couple times and then I kind of ratcheted it up," Greene said. "I was really happy Coach McCarthy and Dom made that decision. They said, ‘All right, let’s get him out there. Give him to Greene.’ You know what, it was a good decision by them to let me put my hands on him.”
Neal will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, meaning the Packers will have to think long and hard about his value to the defense going forward.
As for now, they just want to keep him healthy for a late-season run.
“We’re trying to get mike to game day as healthy as we can,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Mike’s role, he’s played an awful lot more outside than we anticipated, but he’s also going inside and rushing some inside. We like that combination of Clay and Mike with Mike inside and Clay outside. We think that creates some problems for people. When we’ve had that, it’s been pretty good for us.”