GREEN BAY – There was a time, not too long ago, when Mike Neal didn’t think he’d still be standing where he was on Thursday afternoon, in the Green Bay Packers’ spacious locker room.
Following a tumultuous first two seasons in the NFL that consisted of more injuries than big plays, the Packers defensive end didn’t think he’d still have a reason to call the league’s smallest market home. Add in a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances to start the season and an NFL Draft in April that saw the Packers select two defensive linemen in the first four rounds, Neal figured his time in Green Bay just might be up.
“After I got suspended, and I saw the way that the draft went and all the guys that they brought in, I knew my chances of making the team were probably slim,” Neal said as he and his teammates continued to prepare for Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome. “That’s just how I looked at it from my perspective. They may not have thought that, but that’s pretty much how I looked at it.”
That mentality proved to be a blessing for Neal. He took a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude into training camp, and for the first time in his career, he was stayed healthy throughout the preseason and finished it with a strong performance against the Kansas City Chiefs. There was no question he’d earned a roster spot, but then he was forced to leave the team to serve his suspension.
“I was in Tampa for two weeks and (then) I was able to coach my little brother’s football games (in Indiana),” Neal said of what he did during the suspension. “I’ve never gotten the opportunity to see my little brother’s play football. I haven’t gotten a chance – my dad’s birthday was during that time – and I haven’t been able to spend a birthday with him in like eight years, so I think that those type of things – just as much as football, but life in general – are important. It gave me a chance to sit back and reflect and be hungry.”
He returned in Week 5 and registered a sack and two quarterback hurries in the Packers’ loss to the Indianapolis Colts. And now, after playing in just two games as a rookie due to a rib injury and later a torn rotator cuff, and missing the first 10 weeks of last season with a knee injury, Neal has played in as many games this year (10) as he did in his first two seasons combined.
And played well.
“Mike’s been really good. He’s given us some impact plays when he’s in there. He’s got the ability to make impact plays,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “I kept telling you that Mike’s a good football player. Mike has rare explosion and rare ability, rare strength. Last year, you could just tell it wasn’t Mike. He couldn’t do the things we were asking him to do, even though he kept trying and kept trying.”
Entering Sunday’s game against the Vikings, Neal has 4.5 sacks, and only four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (12) on the team.
“The way I look at it, I’m actually happy I went through that because it made me tougher,” Neal said of dealing with injuries. “It made me hungrier. It made me not pay attention to media, not pay attention to people on Twitter. I’m just able to live now and do what I can do.”
“It’s a credit to him,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “The perseverance. Even the start of this season. The guy missed the first four games and everybody is giving him crap. And for him to come back and obviously accept his role … A lot of times you have problems because people can’t accept their roles. Everybody wants to be a star. Everybody wants to be a starter.
“But Mike has accepted his role as a third-down specialist – bringing in energy, bringing in juice, pushing the pocket, getting pressure. I think he’s done that, and obviously he’s done a great job at that. His combination of speed and power I think is pretty much unmatched.”
His role has increased even more in the last few weeks as injuries to two other defensive linemen, C.J. Wilson and Jerel Worthy, have led to him playing on early downs, too.
“I’ve never not saw myself as that,” Neal said of being an every down player. “I always want to play the run. I think last year, my knee issue, that’s a big deal when you play the defensive line because you play the game from the ground up. I think that when my knee’s been healthy, I’ve wanted the chance to prove I can play the run. However they use me is how they use me. If they give me snaps in the ‘Okie’ (base) defense, I’ll take them, but if I’m a third-down situational player, I’ll make the most out of those snaps. I really don’t care.”
He’s made the most of them of late. ProFootballFocus.com has credited Neal with three sacks and three quarterback hurries in the past two games.
“I know, particularly being a high draft pick and coming to the Packers, even when I was coming in, the history of guys maybe not living up to the potential at the first round, second round position,” Raji said, likely referring to 2007 first-round draft pick Justin Harrell. “So I was happy for him to come in and eventually start asserting himself as a good player. And you know, give Packers’ fans something to hang their hat on.”
Neal admits that he put too much pressure on himself a year ago when the Packers expected him to fill the role of Cullen Jenkins, who left via free agency for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“(The Packers) knew what my situation was coming into last year (coming off the shoulder injury), but I put so much pressure on myself to perform because I kind of read into what we’ve been talking about, not being able to let go of what people are saying,” Neal said. “People calling me a bust, injury-prone … it was one of those things I couldn’t let go of so I wanted to play so well that I was actually playing worse.
“Like I said, once you get into the room and you understand that my teammates know what I’m doing. My coaches know what I’m doing. That other people can’t do what I do and they don’t know the game of football like we see it. It doesn’t matter and then once I let that go it was just like ok, just play football. Be who you are. Everybody’s got a different skill set. Mine may not be the same as BJ.’s or Picks or C.J.’s but I play a different game so play my game and that’s all that really matters.”
Neal is also crediting his suspension for his strong play. When asked Thursday if the arbitrator that overturned Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman’s suspension was the same one that denied his appeal Neal made his feelings pretty clear.
“I don’t know,” Neal said. “I really could care less. If I had to send him a Christmas card, I would tell him thank you for suspending me. You just took the shackles off a monster. And that was the wrong thing to do.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.