Slimmer Neal continues work as Packers linebacker

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By Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, July 29, 2014

GREEN BAY--Mike Neal’s days as one of the Green Bay Packers’ best interior pass rushers are over, at least for now.

Neal reported for training camp at 263 pounds, the lowest weight of his collegiate and professional career. The drop of about 15 pounds from last season should spur Neal’s development at outside linebacker but also renders him too small to rush against the center and guards.

Having been used strictly from a two-point stance the entire offseason, Neal doesn’t expect to play as a down lineman any time soon.

“The demand for me to go inside and rush is probably not going to be there,” Neal said Monday. “If they had a problem with my weight, they would have asked me to gain weight when I got back here. But nobody said anything, so I don’t expect to be in there.”

Coach Mike McCarthy once insisted that the most valuable phase of Neal’s game was rushing from defensive tackle on passing downs.

That’s when Neal weighed about 290 as a backup defensive end in the base defense.

In March 2013, Neal tipped the scales at 305 as he awaited marching orders. Shifted to outside linebacker for the first time at any level, Neal ended up playing 25 pounds lighter.

“It depended,” recalled Neal. “I started at 274, but towards the end of the season I was every bit of 280. Sometimes against some teams I wanted to be a little bit heavier.”

Even at 263, Neal might possess the speed and strength to generate pressure against blockers outweighing him by 50 pounds. However, he’d be a sitting duck against third-down running plays.

Neal, 27, isn’t surprised the nickel rush line doesn’t include him.

“B.J. (Raji) will trickle in there a little bit,” said Neal. “Datone (Jones) is doing great. You know what Mike Daniels can do. Josh Boyd is a sleeper.”

Julius Peppers might get his share of rushes from inside, and if Jerel Worthy ever gets healthy he’ll get a shot, too.

Last year, Neal played 24 of his 48 snaps with his hand down in the first two games. Later, when Clay Matthews and Nick Perry were in and out because of injuries, Neal ended up with more snaps than any outside linebacker.

His overall total of 740 plays ranked sixth on defense. Neal finished with 30 pressures, one off Daniels’ team-high total and five more than he had in his first three injury-abbreviated seasons.

One day into the unrestricted signing period in March, the Packers signaled their respect for Neal’s game by bringing him back for $8 million over two years.

Of course, Peppers was added three days later and took Neal’s job. As it stands, Neal’s average annual salary of $4 million is tied for 10th on the Packers and more than double that of any other veteran backup.

“I probably won’t play as much this year,” Neal said. “Right now it probably looks like I’ll be more situational. But I never know what the coaching staff is thinking and you never know what might happen.”

Peppers, 34, will be given breathers by McCarthy. Matthews has a problematic thumb, and Perry’s injuries the past two seasons far exceed Neal’s.

Based on compensation, the Packers obviously regarded Neal’s baptismal at linebacker as a success.

Usually, Neal played with high energy and violence. He could be imposing physically as he controlled some tight ends. His pass rush from a standup position got better and better.

At the same time, Neal either was caught out of position or fooled by some bootlegs and misdirection runs. He was second on the club in missed tackles with 13, most occurring in space.

“People don’t understand,” said Neal. “It was like asking someone to do something they’ve never done before. It was growing pains.

“I never was really that good breaking down in coverage. Could I run with people out of the backfield? That I can do. Making tackles in the open field? That I wasn’t good at.”

Last winter, Neal determined to increase his speed by getting lighter.

“I can do it at that weight (275), but why not lose some weight and be better in space, be better in coverage, be a little bit faster?” said Neal. “263 is probably more naturally what my body is. Still, at 263 pounds, it’s still considered a big outside linebacker.”

Shortly after returning to Green Bay for camp, Neal suffered what he regards as a mild core strain in his midsection. He was preparing to practice Saturday when general manager Ted Thompson intervened.

“Ted said, ‘Not so fast, buddy,’” said Neal. “When the head man says you sit down, you can’t argue that. They said we’re not looking for you to do anything special right now. They said we need you for 16 games.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. How many times did you write a story: ‘Mike Neal’s not healthy.’

“It gets old, man. It gets old to me. But I can’t help the hand I’ve been dealt.”

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