GREEN BAY—The last two days have provided a boost to the Packers outside linebacker corps.
Nick Perry took the field on Thursday for the first time since last January’s playoff game. Perry’s return from extensive rehab of his foot and knee injuries came one day after Mike Neal got his first training camp action following a recurrence of an abdominal strain.
Both were immediately getting their share of reps behind starters Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers in team and one-on-one drills. That kind of depth at the key pass-rushing positions has been the vision for 2014, and it might begin coming to fruition now.
“We’re just getting them out there and getting them in sync, what we’re doing and how we’re using them,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
Neal has slimmed down to the mid-260-pound range, one year after dropping from around 300 to 275 to transition from playing defensive lineman. Perry made the position change as a first-round draft pick in 2012, but injuries have marred his first two seasons as a pro.
Knee and wrist injuries sidelined Perry after only six games his rookie season. Then last year, just as he was coming on with three sacks over a game and a half, he broke his foot and was out again.
He returned to play down the stretch last season, but it was easy to see he wasn’t fully healthy. Sitting out the entire offseason program and the first four practices of training camp further underscored that.
“I’m to the point now where I can just focus on football,” Perry said. “I’ve been working my tail off to get to where I’m at now.”
Neal’s career started similarly, with injuries galore for two seasons. Mostly healthy over the last two years, Neal has produced 9½ sacks and an interception.
When healthy, Perry has made an impact. In 18 career games, including last January’s playoff contest, he has recorded seven sacks and forced three fumbles.
“I know the defense, I have a good foundation, so now I don’t really have to worry about plays anymore,” Perry said. “I can really study my opponent and anticipate things. That’s part of being a pro now. I’m staying ahead of those things.”
Thursday’s practice was the most spirited and energetic of camp thus far. With starting safety Morgan Burnett (ankle) out, Sean Richardson snagged his second interception in three days, this one off a deflection by cornerback Davon House. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, Richardson is known as a run-support safety but has certainly shown up in pass coverage.
“We were having a conversation yesterday and he said he knows a lot more of the playbook this year than he did last year, and you can tell,” fellow safety Micah Hyde said. “He’s out there being confident with his calls, making plays. Him being so big and being able to come up and support the run, he’s like another linebacker that can move.”
The offense later countered with Aaron Rodgers’ patented play-action deep ball to Jordy Nelson, who outfought Casey Hayward for the catch. Defensive linemen Datone Jones and Josh Boyd flashed penetration in the one-on-one and team run drills, respectively, but then the offense again got even as each was drawn offside by hard counts in the pass-under-pressure drill.
The most eye-catching play of camp to date was made by receiver Alex Gillett, an undrafted rookie a year ago who spent time on the practice squad last season and is taking another shot at cracking the roster.
Running a go route down the sideline against rookie cornerback Demetri Goodson, Gillett looked as though he had no chance to catch Matt Flynn’s pass until he jumped over Goodson’s back and somehow tumbled down with it. The play fired up everyone on the offense and served as major redemption for Gillett, who moments earlier had dropped a short pass from Rodgers on a crossing route.
“Especially when Aaron’s in there and you drop a ball, that’s one you’re like, I need to make up for it,” he said. “So that definitely crossed my mind.”
Gillett, a converted college quarterback from Eastern Michigan, has a tough row to hoe in climbing a deep depth chart at receiver, but highlight-reel plays like that don’t go unnoticed.
“Big plays are huge in the National Football League,” said McCarthy, explaining the Packers consider big-play production one of five fundamentals they preach. “You look at the statistics, big plays play a huge part in your success as a football team. When you see a play like that, yes, it has a lot of magnitude to it.” Additional coverage - July 31