Mike Neal is lighter, but he's ready to pressure quarterbacks
Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Mike Neal (96) runs a drill at training camp.
As it turned out, he was wrong. Even weighing in the low 260s, Neal now appears to figure prominently playing with his hand down at defensive tackle in the nickel and dime defenses.
"For the most part, I'm only going in there when it's passing situations," Neal said. "I can't knock people all the way back to the (quarterback) but my speed works good."
On the first third down Saturday in St. Louis, the front four, from left to right, included Julius Peppers, Datone Jones, Neal and Clay Matthews.
Neal took five snaps with his hand down after having about two in Tennessee.
"I won my rushes on the inside, so that was a good thing," Neal said. "Granted, they slid their protection to me."
Mike Trgovac, who coached Neal from 2010-'12 when he was a 295-pound base end and fixture on the nickel rush, doesn't expect Neal to get rag-dolled by guards averaging about 310 pounds.
"He'll be fine inside," Trgovac said. "Obviously, you've got to pick and choose your spots in there. You don't want to put him in there on third and 1."
Neal isn't the first vastly undersized interior rusher. Defensive ends Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka weighed in the mid-260s when they rushed inside for the Super-Bowl winning New York Giants in 2011.
Other teams also have tried exploiting a relatively slow-footed guard with a smaller but much more athletic rusher.
"Obviously, when you lose weight you lose a little bit of power," guard Josh Sitton said. "You don't have to worry too much about bull rush with him being that light, although he's still got good power because he's long.
"His biggest asset is how he gets off the ball. His get-off is pretty much lightning right now."
The Packers didn't re-sign Neal to a two-year contract averaging $4 million to ride the pines. His 30 pressures last season was one fewer than Mike Daniels' team-leading total.
As the team's No. 3 outside linebacker, Neal blew a sack in each of the first two games by getting too anxious once he beat his man.
"It will shake out to be Clay and 'Pep' playing most of the game outside (at linebacker)," Neal said. "I'll take snaps wherever I can get them."
Daniels, the team's best rusher inside, might need breathers on passing downs if he continues to start and plays the majority of snaps at right end in the base 3-4.
Nose tackle B.J. Raji probably would remain Trgovac's first choice to be in the nickel front four on a third and 3 if the opponent's personnel grouping suggests a running play. However, Raji wants snaps on third and long as he did in 2010, his finest season.
"It's competitive — that's good, though," Raji said. "That's when you know you have a good team."
Periodically, Peppers has taken snaps inside with his hand down in alignments where Neal takes his berth outside. In some of Dom Capers' defenses over the years, Matthews has jumped into a three-point stance and then taken a crack at a guard or center.
"There won't be a big difference this year," Raji said. "We've always had different packages."
In the two exhibitions, Neal hasn't run any stunts in conjunction with Matthews, who is his close friend. If the past is any indication, expect that come September.
"In a four-man rush, it's big being familiar with the guy outside you," Raji said. "A catalyst a lot of times is getting comfortable with the guys on either side of you."
Josh Boyd is the other defensive lineman with a chance to be part of the nickel rush.
"We've got some guys that can rush the passer," Trgovac said. "This is the time of year for experimentation. Nothing's been determined."
Even with an abundance of veteran, seemingly capable interior rushers, Trgovac made it known that Matthews and Peppers will be counted upon to spearhead the rush.
"With the ends that we have now, we just want to make sure we get good push in the middle and not get in their way," Trgovac said. "We won't do the same thing every down, and we're going to mix and match (players).
"Third down is the money down. We want to make sure the guys on the outside are our money guys."
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