After practicing on Friday on a limited basis for the third consecutive day, the NFL sack leader appears poised to return on Sunday night against the Vikings in an important divisional matchup.
“Everything is going well,” said Matthews, who still leads the league in sacks with 8½ despite missing last Sunday’s game against Miami. “We’re making great progress in regards to getting back out there. Obviously taking more reps as the practices progressed, but I feel good. With the 48-hour rest we have before the game, I should be full speed.”
Matthews re-injured his left hamstring in the third quarter of Green Bay’s Week 5 contest at Washington, the same injury that forced him to miss the entire preseason this year and most of the preseason as a rookie in 2009. The injury originated at his Pro Day at USC back in the spring of 2009, but up until last Sunday had never forced him to miss a regular-season game.
“It’s real frustrating because I take pride in the fact that I am a durable player,” Matthews said. “I notice people who continue to play and don’t miss games, so that is kind of unfortunate.
“Especially being the same injury and not really figuring out how to kind of avoid this injury and re-injury is kind of tough. We’ll address it in the offseason, but hopefully we’ll be able to make it through the season without any speed bumps and take it from there.”
Last Sunday, the Packers took the decision on Matthews’ availability right up until 90 minutes before kickoff, when teams are required to turn in their 45-man rosters. Matthews tested his hamstring on the field in front of strength and conditioning coordinator Mark Lovat and members of the team’s medical staff, but it was determined that he wasn’t ready to return, a decision Matthews agreed with.
“You’ve got to understand it is for the greater good in regards to this is a long season,” Matthews said. “Personally, I would rather sit out one game than potentially have a setback for four to five games.
“It was real tough, especially the manner in which we lost. Giving up a few yards on defense and I guess coming away with zero sacks, it makes you want to be out there a little bit more and help your team out.”
Matthews’ likely return comes at the right time for a defense that ranks tied for second in the league this season with 21 sacks, the most posted in the first six games of a season by a Packers team since 2001. Last season in Green Bay’s two losses to Minnesota, the defense failed to sack quarterback Brett Favre or get any pressure on the veteran signal-caller as he posted a combined passer rating of 135.9 in the two contests, completing 41-of-59 passes for 515 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions.
“He sat back there and picked us apart,” Matthews said. “We don’t have to lie about that. But we have to get some pressure on him. Knowing that he is not as mobile as he once was when he was younger, if we can get some hits on him, get him off his game, I think it will pay dividends for us.”
Matthews said if he is active on Sunday night, he expects to return to his normal workload as opposed to easing his way back in as a situational pass rusher. While admitting there will be a mental hurdle to clear early on when he does get back on the field, Matthews emphasized that he won’t be “playing careful.”
“I think that is one of the biggest concerns when you come back,” Matthews said. “Physically I feel good, but mentally it is knowing that you are capable of planting on it and doing everything that you have been doing, and that will come with time.
“I’m going to play the way I know how to, and that’s kind of all-out and we’ll take it from there.”
Cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby both practiced for the third straight day on Friday, but whether they will be activated for Sunday night’s game remains unclear.
Both players have been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of training camp, with Harris rehabbing from a major knee injury sustained last season in Week 11 and Bigby an ankle injury that required surgery in early August.
“What’s nice about their week is you see them more and more comfortable as the week went on,” McCarthy said. “Whether they’ll go this week or not, that’s something to be determined. But I thought they clearly were getting more comfortable as the week went on.”
While Harris said he thought physically he was ready to play an entire game, whatever role is asked of him if he is cleared will suit him just fine.
“Of course I would love to play,” Harris said. “I’m eager to play, but at the same (time) I am respecting the process and the decision-making. Like I said, they have been good. They have been good to me. They told me to get well. Don’t worry about how long it takes, just get better. As unloyal as this business is, I thought that was a pretty heads-up move by them.
“Whatever they ask of me, if they were to come to me and say, ‘Hey, Al, we just want you to do this or we want you to do a whole game,’ or however it would go, I’m up for it. Whatever decision they make, I’m with it.”
Bigby reported that his ankle is pain-free, but the biggest adjustment is getting acclimated to the speed of the game again, something that is hard to replicate during practice.
“The final decision is going to come down to the coaches and the rest of the medical staff, but I’m preparing myself to be the starter,” Bigby said. “I’m preparing myself even mentally to be a backup. So whatever the role is, I am prepared for it.”
Defensive end Mike Neal (shoulder) and linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee) are out for Sunday, while guard/tackle Marshall Newhouse (back) is doubtful.
Matthews, linebacker Brandon Chillar (shoulder), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and tackle Mark Tauscher (shoulder) are questionable for Sunday.
Chillar, who has been sidelined the past three games since sustaining the injury at Chicago in Week 3, was a full participant in practice on Friday for the first time this week.
“I thought he has really put together a good week,” McCarthy said. “Actually Brandon was down there after practice ... did some padded work just to make sure he’s ready to go with his shoulder. He’s definitely, him and Ryan Pickett, I want to see how they come back in the morning.”
Tackle Chad Clifton (knee), safety Nick Collins (knee), wide receiver Donald Driver (quad), linebacker A.J. Hawk (groin), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (hand) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) are all probable.
Driver returned as a limited participant on Friday after not practicing at all the previous two days. Woodson was excused from practice for the second straight day because of personal reasons, but McCarthy said they were of a “positive nature” and he fully anticipated the veteran cornerback would play on Sunday.
For Minnesota, safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) is out for Sunday. He has started all five games at strong safety for the Vikings this season.
Tackle Chris DeGeare (ankle) and cornerback Lito Sheppard (hand) are questionable, while Favre (ankle/right elbow), cornerback Chris Cook (knee), tackle Ryan Cook (wrist), defensive tackle Letroy Guion (toe), wide receiver Percy Harvin (hamstring), linebacker E.J. Henderson (knee), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (groin), defensive end Brian Robison (ankle) and center John Sullivan (calf) are probable.
Additional coverage – Oct. 22