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Neal has to step up in Matthews' absence

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October 9, 2013

In Week 1, he was the Green Bay Packers' mystery man. A secret weapon. In Week 6, he needs to be so much more.

A play-maker.

Mike Neal isn't sure if he's sneaking up on anyone.

“You know what? It's best for me to keep myself below the clouds,” Neal said Wednesday. “I don't like to get a big head about anything. If I'm a secret weapon to teams, then I'm that. If they have to scheme against me, then that's on them.”

Clay Matthews isn't returning any time soon. Turns out, surgery was needed on his broken thumb—and it was the team's call. Calling it “a medical decision,” Mike McCarthy said Matthews would be out “multiple weeks.” If it was up to the all-pro linebacker, the coach said, he'd play Sunday. So now, the Packers are counting even more on this defensive tackle turned end turned outside linebacker.

Matthews demoralized game plans. He was the player every quarterback, every coordinator needed to identify on a play-to-play basis. Neal believes he can grow into that weapon.

“Yeah, most definitely. Most certainly,” Neal said. “I think that just continued growth at the position and understanding what I have to do and talking with Clay and understanding certain things, I can be that player. But it takes awhile. Nothing is easy.

“By the end of the season I think I'll be able to do that.”

The Packers hope so. This weekend at Baltimore, Neal will start opposite Nick Perry.

Neal is exceeding expectations—by a long shot. He picked off a pass in a blowout win over Washington. He had six tackles and a sack in Green Bay's 22-9 win over Detroit last weekend. Forget linebacker, the NFL, Neal said that might have been his best game ever.

With Neal, this has been the intrigue all along—what could be, the unknown. He dropped 25 pounds to play linebacker. Gym-rat strong, he's one of the team's most explosive athletes. Neal says he might even drop another 5-6 pounds to play lighter until Matthews returns. He also anticipates playing linebacker 75% of the time and being a down lineman about 25 percent of his snaps.

Experimenting is over. The team needs Neal at outside linebacker.

And to think just last spring, Neal stood here at his locker a bit lost. Fresh off 4 sacks on the defensive line in 2012, he had no clue how this switch would go. There was never a moment where everything clicked, where he felt he fit in at outside linebacker.

“Never,” Neal said. “To be honest with you because I never knew I'd be playing this position as much as I have, I think one of the biggest things is being healthy and being able to do what I can do. I was healthy last year and I provided a little bit of a spark coming off the bench.

“I know the type of football player I am. I don't care where they put me at. They put me at middle linebacker, just being healthy and being able to play football, I think I can do that.”

That's the twist of irony. As players drop like flies, Neal stays healthy.

In Matthews, the Packers lose a player with 16 sacks in his last 16 games. The pressure was constant. As defensive coordinator Dom Capers often says, Matthews made the two, three plays that change the complexion of games.

Neal and/or Perry have huge shoes to fill.

Defensive tackle Mike Daniels sees a difference in both players this week. There's a pep in their step, an energy. He believes Neal will flourish because he'll be let loose more at outside linebacker than as a nickel rusher. There's less tying up blockers, less clogging two gaps.

“He can just go,” Daniels said. “You know how I said our defensive line can't just fly off the ball like a maniac? He can fly off the ball like a maniac. And then he's real strong, too. He gives those guys all kinds of problems. And it is fun to watch.”

There will be challenges. With more snaps, the 275-pound Neal could be schemed into coverage more. Position coach Kevin Greene describes this as the necessary evil to the job, Neal says. Everyone wants to tee off on the quarterback. He'll have to chase down receivers, too. And on the road—at a loud M&T Bank Stadium—communication will also be difficult.

There's a lot of “moving parts” in the defense, Neal said, that players can't always verbalize before the snap.

As for Matthews' fifth-gear, hair-on-fire motor, there might not be another player in the league who could replace that. Both Neal and Perry are power players first. They'll need to be themselves. Sunday was a start.

The way Neal looks at it, last season was his “freshman” year. This is his “sophomore” year. He's healthy, he's contributing. Now the Packers are counting on more.

“I'm not trying to mimic Clay,” Neal said. “I'm not Clay. I'm Mike Neal, and I'll be able to play like Mike Neal plays, and that's the biggest thing.”



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