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Neal stepping into spotlight with Matthews injured

Secret is out of bag

Published: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 12:11 a.m. CST
Caption
(MCT)
Mike Neal (left) has worn many hats on the Packers' defense this season. For the next few games, he'll try to replace Clay Matthews, who is out with a broken thumb.

GREEN BAY – 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 playmaker.

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 a while. 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. 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 or 6 pounds to play lighter until Matthews returns. He also anticipates playing linebacker 75 percent 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 4½ 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.

Neal file

Age: 26

Height/Weight: 6-3/275

Postion: Linebacker

College: Purdue

2013 stats: 11 tackels, 1 sack, 1 INT

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