Al Harris and Atari Bigby, who spent the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list, began practicing for the first time on Wednesday. And in better news for Sunday night's key game against Minnesota, Clay Matthews, Ryan Pickett and Brandon Chillar were back at practice.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Matthews, the NFL's sacks leader despite missing last week's game with a hamstring strain, had a "good workout" on Wednesday and is on course to play on Sunday, barring a setback.
"I think he'll be a big factor if he is healthy and hopefully he is," McCarthy said. "We'll look for him to go out and play to the level that he has established in such a young career. He'll be a big part of the game plan if he is ready to go."
Chillar (shoulder) and Pickett (ankle) also would have key roles if healthy. Pickett, who said his ankle feels "much better" after a Redskins lineman dove on it two weeks ago, will be needed to help keep Adrian Peterson in check. Chillar is the Packers' top coverage linebacker and the Vikings have a big-time tight end in Visanthe Shiancoe.
"I'm dealing with a real issue so I have to be careful with it," Chillar said. "We made a smart decision to take that extra week. Today, I feel good and that's primarily because I didn't play last week."
Whether Bigby or Harris will be able to contribute remains to be seen, and McCarthy certainly wasn't tipping off his intentions. Asked if there was less urgency to get those players back in the lineup because third corner Sam Shields and safety Charlie Peprah had been playing at an acceptable level, McCarthy said he doesn't think in those terms.
"Until they get over a physical hurdle, then we'll start talking about evaluating them on where they fit into the mix," McCarthy said.
Nonetheless, their return provided a shot of energy for a team coming off of two consecutive overtime losses.
Harris was on the field for the first time since tearing up his knee during the Nov. 22 game against San Francisco. While Harris was barred from practicing while on PUP, he was doing all of the cornerback-specific movements and drills on his own, giving him confidence that the knee will hold up in a game situation.
"It was awesome just being around the guys, being in the huddle," Harris said. "A lot of times, you can take that for granted, but it was good just to be around the guys."
Initially, Harris bristled at being put on PUP, but in retrospect, he applauded the approach taken by McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson.
"You know what, I think we did the right thing," he said. "I think we did the right thing. Seriously. At first, I was like, ‘Aaaargh.' But the more and more you start looking at games, start to look at the way guys are moving around, I'm thankful they stuck with me. I think we did the right thing. Serious talk."
Bigby was on the field for the first time since leaving the playoff game at Arizona on Jan. 10 with an injured hamstring. After skipping all of the offseason work and then needing ankle surgery after he couldn't participate in training camp, Bigby says there's a chance he'll be ready to play this week.
"We're good. I'm ready to go," he said. "I just have to get my eyes back and make sure I'm playing the position the way it needs to be played."
Driver in doubt
Donald Driver, who missed practice time with a quad bruise last week and aggravated the injury against Miami, did not practice.
"Everybody knows Donald doesn't miss practice," McCarthy said.
Driver, who leads the team with 28 receptions, hasn't missed a game because of injury since 2004. His best game in terms of catches (11 in 2004) and yards (191 in 2006) came against the Vikings.
Packers injury report
Out: DE Mike Neal (shoulder), LB Brady Poppinga (knee). Did not participate: S Nick Collins (knee), WR Donald Driver (quad), LB A.J. Hawk (groin). Limited participation: LB Brandon Chillar (shoulder), T Chad Clifton (knee), DE Cullen Jenkins (hand), LB Clay Matthews (hamstring), DE Ryan Pickett (ankle), T Mark Tauscher (shoulder), CB Charles Woodson (toe).
Neal already has been ruled out, making it vital that Pickett can play. McCarthy sounded more optimistic about Hawk and Collins than Driver.
Vikings injury report
Did not participate: S Husain Abdullah (concussion), TE Jim Kleinsasser (groin), CB Lito Sheppard (hand). Limited participation: CB Chris Cook (knee), T Chris DeGeare (ankle), QB Brett Favre (ankle, elbow), DT Letroy Guion (toe), LB E.J. Henderson (knee), DE Brian Robison (ankle), C John Sullivan (calf).
Vikings coach Brad Childress, in a conference call with Packers reporters on Wednesday, said Favre is on a pitch count during practice to keep his ailing elbow feeling OK.
"Tarvaris (Jackson) took a good deal of snaps at practice, probably more than any No. 2 I've been around, but it served him well and I think it helped Brett, as well," Childress said, reflecting on how he divvied up snaps last year. "He gets the plays that he needs looks at with specific receivers, whether it be Moss or Harvin or Bernard or Greg Lewis. We mix him in and out."
— Rookie running back James Starks also is able to practice after spending the first six weeks on PUP. Most of his practice was focused on fundamentals such as how to carry the football. "Yeah, almost," Starks said when asked if it felt like high school. "Fundamentals, you can't go wrong with fundamentals. Hard work and dedication, fundamentally sound, that makes great players."
— With Starks finally practicing, the Packers released practice squad running back James Johnson and replaced him with defensive lineman Jay Ross, who worked out for the team a few weeks ago. Ross (6-3, 308) was an undrafted free agent this year who spent training camp with the Saints. He had five sacks as a junior and 1.5 as a senior at East Carolina, where he was a teammate of Packers seventh-round pick C.J. Wilson.
— Bigby, on the NFL's tougher rules on helmet-to-helmet hits: "I don't think it would be wise to change the way you play. At the end of the day, I have to stop receivers, running backs from getting into the end zone. Nobody wants to hear, 'Well, I didn't want to get fined.' So I'm going to do my best to play within the rules, but at the same time, I'm going to make sure that nobody crosses the end zone behind me."
— Turns out Randy Moss does more than score touchdowns. "He did kind of a give a little extemporaneous speech before we went out to start the second half the other day (against Dallas)," Childress said in his conference call. "I have to say what I have to say and we always get a break before we go out, and he jumped in the middle of it and talked about playing Vikings football. Anytime you speak from the heart, which he did, and there's a lot of guys in the locker room that haven't been around him before, you get it and it resonates. I don't suppose that he'll get crying and slinging snot every weekend in the locker room but it was what needed to be said then and he took it upon himself to say it."
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