GREEN BAY – In an attempt to explain during last month’s NFL Scouting Combine what disappointed him about his team’s defense last season, Mike McCarthy opted for a curious analogy.
“The things we’re going to do more [of] on defense – and we’ll do this more in detail when the players get back in April – we have to do a better job of utilizing our personnel,” the Green Bay Packers coach explained during his podium time at Lucas Oil Stadium. “We’ve had a situation with our defense where there’s a lot of change, a lot of moving parts and we have to do a better job of planning for that and training that way starting in April.
“We have a lot of creativity in our defense and a lot of scheme, but the reality is we didn’t get to a lot of it this past year. We’re taking too much home with us after we’re playing games. At the end of the day, coaches are responsible for building a plan for players to be in a position to be successful and we have to make sure that we are emptying our guns each and every week. That will be a focus of ours on defense.
“By doing that, I think we can do a better job of giving players more than one role; utilizing more players in the flow. ... That will be one of our primary focuses.”
One of those bullets: Hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker Mike Neal, who re-signed with the Packers Wednesday, agreeing to a two-year deal after a brief flirtation with the open market.
Neal’s role in the defense was supposed to be more multiple than it wound up being because of injuries that forced him to play most of his snaps at outside linebacker. Nevertheless, what started as an offseason experiment hatched by ex-outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene turned out to be a worthwhile endeavor, as Neal played 751 snaps, the most of any outside linebacker, and finished with five sacks, four quarterback hits and a team-high 37 hurries while seeing action in every game for the first time in his career.
Later that day, in an interview at his downtown Indianapolis hotel, McCarthy was reluctant to get too specific about what he’d like to do differently on defense next season, but he did mention Neal’s name when discussing the ways the defense was held back by injuries.
“We trained it in training camp, [but with] just the way the injuries went, Mike played pretty much outside linebacker most of the year,” McCarthy said. “That wasn’t the plan or the vision of his job description.
“It’s taking advantage of a guy like Mike Neal because at the end of the day, I still think the best thing, in my opinion, that Mike Neal does is rush from a three-technique (interior defensive line position), particular in third down in the sub package. I think he’s a real force in there.”
Neal became the second Packers unrestricted free agent to re-up with the team, after cornerback Sam Shields struck a four-year, $39 million deal on Saturday. Like Shields, the Packers view the 26-year-old Neal as an up-and-coming player who’s just scratching the surface of his talent, even though both players joined the team in 2010 – Shields as an undrafted free agent, and Neal as a second-round pick.
To be sure, the Packers’ defense needs to improve after last season, when the unit finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game), 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0), 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3), tied for eighth in sacks (44) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
And while outside additions through free agency – although none yet – and the draft would help, the team’s tried-and-true draft-and-develop mantra makes it absolutely imperative to get improvement from within, and that’s what the Packers will be needing from Neal. Ideally, defensive coordinator Dom Capers would like to use Neal as both a stand-up outside linebacker and hand-in-the-dirt lineman in the sub packages, and perhaps get back to using the five-linebacker Psycho package a bit more, too.
Capers suggested that having a healthy Clay Matthews (who missed six games with a broken thumb) and a healthy Nick Perry (who was bothered by a foot injury suffered in mid-October) on the outside and Neal rushing from an inside position with Datone Jones or Mike Daniels could be dangerous.
“It’s obviously transition when you have guys that are converted defensive ends playing outside linebacker, but it’s really not anything that’s new in this defense,” Capers said, referring to the injuries that struck. “You take a guy like Mike Neal, our plans [were] to have Mike kind of a multi-purpose guy, play inside and outside. As the season worked itself out, Clay played the fewest number of snaps this year that he’s played, Mike Neal played more snaps for us at outside linebacker than any other outside linebacker. So those are things you have to respond to as you work your way through the season.”
For Neal, the new deal means that he’ll still be able to hit free agency again while in the prime of his career. If he’s as productive as the Packers envision him being, he’ll either make himself indispensable to them or attract a big-money offer elsewhere.
“I knew that [moving to outside linebacker] would be a task,” Neal said at season’s end. “But one of the biggest things, KG was always in my head telling me, ’Athletically, you have the skill set to do anything you want to. It’s just mentally, where will you be at at understanding? How fast is your ability to pick up on things?’ And he always told me that once you see something, and you get beat on it, I don’t have to coach you because you’re already hard enough on yourself. That just helps me with the transition. I was surprised. I ended up with a lot of tackles and sacks and big-time plays.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.