When veteran Ryan Pickett went down with an ankle injury on the defense’s first series against Washington last Sunday, Neal’s workload suddenly increased to more than 50 snaps. That’s twice as many as he played in Week 4 vs. Detroit, which was his NFL debut after missing the season’s first three games with strained muscles near his rib cage.
It’s also the type of workload he can expect if Pickett is out for any length of time. A timetable on Pickett’s return hadn’t been established as of early this week, but suddenly the rookie with just two games under his belt could be both a starter in the 3-4 front alongside Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji, as well as a regular as an inside rusher in the nickel with either of them.
“He’s got to be ready to fill in,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “They all do. That’s what they’re here for.”
Judging by Neal’s extended playing time against the Redskins, the coaches appear confident he’s up to the task. Neal notched his first NFL sack in the game, bringing down Donovan McNabb for a 9-yard loss late in the third quarter. He also held his own against the run, as Washington running back Ryan Torain averaged just 2.5 yards per rush (16 carries, 40 yards).
Trgovac said Neal “started off slow” against the Redskins’ zone running scheme but improved as the game went on. With Miami’s multiple running backs and “wildcat” formation, plus Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, on the schedule the next two weeks, fundamentally sound run defense will be at a premium as Neal prepares for these upcoming games.
“He had some little rookie mistakes, coming around and biting on this play or that play,” Trgovac said. “But he got a lot better, and most of the things he had problems with were just how to play the run, not being blocked. We spent a lot of time on the sideline getting that managed in there.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said it’s just a matter of getting Neal to slow down, because his first instinct is always to jet up the field through a gap, which he did in college in a 4-3 scheme. That can leave potentially dangerous openings in Green Bay’s defense, where the gap control and run fits are precise with only three down linemen in base and two in the nickel.
“That’s just part of a young guy learning how we play,” Capers said. “At Purdue, he was in the gap going up the field a lot, where we’re going to try to get our hands on those blockers and flatten things down and try to make them go east and west as opposed to giving them the vertical seams in the defense.
“If he flattens out on a couple of those, those 6-, 7-yard runs will end up being 1 and 2.”
Neal’s ability to get upfield in a hurry served him well in his debut against the Lions, when he shot through a gap and got an arm on running back Jahvid Best to force a fumble. More often, though, that quickness at the point of attack is best used on passing downs to get after the quarterback, and that’s where Neal may be able to make the biggest impact the more he plays.
Brutishly strong, Neal posted 5½ sacks each of his final two seasons at Purdue, and his ability to rush the passer on the inside is what prompted the Packers to use a second-round draft pick on him (56th overall) this past April.
In addition to his one sack against McNabb, Neal was also right in the middle of a sack that was shared by Clay Matthews and Raji, though he didn’t officially get any credit. As much as the Packers have played their nickel defense this season, Neal should get plenty more opportunities to pressure opponents provided he continues to progress.
“I think Mike brings a lot to the table,” Capers said. “You saw the one sack that he had where he just overpowered the guy, and he can do that. Really, that’s the perfect type of lineman for us, because it gives you the flexibility on third down. I think B.J. is rushing better than he has, and I think Mike and B.J. give you two guys that are strong inside. It gives you some flexibility with what you do with Cullen too, because Cullen is an excellent rusher inside, and Cullen can rush outside.
“Mike certainly gives you a strong guy that has good movement in there, and I think you’re going to see him continue to get better. I’m encouraged. He’s got to stay healthy and stay on the field, practicing.”
As with any young player, that’s the key. Trgovac said he sensed Neal was really coming into his own toward the end of training camp, but then his injury during practice Week 1 temporarily halted the momentum he was gaining in his development.
It took a full week of practice and playing in that first game against the Lions for Neal to regain his confidence and aggression, in Trgovac’s eyes.
“When he first got here, he might have been feeling his way a little bit, and when he came back the first week (after the injury), he was maybe not so sure with that rib and everything,” Trgovac said. “But I thought last week he had an excellent week of practice, and he looked like the Mike Neal we saw at the end of training camp. A lot of it showed in the game (against the Redskins), and he made some nice plays for us.
“His effort, he’s got very good quickness, and he’s a very physical player. I think he’s going to be an outstanding player for us in the future.”
Now, the hope is that Neal goes only forward from here, because he could be needed more than ever on a defensive line that has seen its share of injuries already, from Neal’s earlier to Jenkins’ broken hand to Justin Harrell’s season-ending ACL tear and now Pickett’s ankle.
“We’ve got our own issues there, but we don’t make excuses for injury because it’s all part of the game,” Trgovac said. “Everybody’s got to be ready to step up, ready to go.”