As a rookie second-round pick from Purdue in 2010, Neal flashed a ton of potential when he was healthy during training camp and his too-short season, which ended after just two games because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. With Cullen Jenkins signing with Philadelphia, the Packers had a massive void in their defense that a healthy Neal looked primed to fill.
Neal, of course, sustained a knee injury during training camp that required surgery, and he made his season debut two weeks ago against Tampa Bay. Even by the coaches' tally, Neal hasn't made a tackle.
That's not to say Neal hasn't been a welcome addition. Quite the opposite, in fact, and Neal has a chance to fulfill those high hopes down the stretch
"From Tampa to Detroit, I thought he progressed in that game," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac told Packer Report on Friday. "He had a couple good pressures on the quarterback. Some of the things when he was in there, we were set-up people so he was just doing his job. We don't do what a lot of people do and go flying off the ball every down. I thought when he had his opportunities, he showed a lot of progress. Now, from Detroit to the Giants, he'll even improve more, just like you'd expect from first preseason to second preseason to third preseason."
Until making his debut against Tampa Bay on Nov. 20, Neal hadn't played since last Oct. 10 against Washington, a span of about 54 weeks. That was a lot of rust to kick off, and he didn't get much of a chance to kick it off before being put into his first game. In fact, Neal wasn't a full participant at any of the practices before the Tampa Bay game, and the Packers held just one practice during the short week leading to the Thanksgiving game at Detroit.
So, Neal didn't quibble with McCarthy's assessment that he was still in preseason mode.
"About right there. I'm sore," Neal said on Thursday. "My body's a little achy. You think about it, today would have been my third time playing with pads on since I came back, so I'm a little achy but I'm good."
Neal played 16 snaps against Tampa Bay and 32 against Detroit, according to snap counts kept by Pro Football Focus. With the lack of a full training camp and then the long layoff, Neal's technique, footwork and timing are all works in progress. Those things are perfected only through practice and playing time.
"It's difficult to come in and play a few snaps and leave, play a few snaps," Trgovac said of Neal mostly playing on passing downs. "As he gets more confidence on that knee, he'll stay in there more plays in a row. He's doing some good things. His timing's just catching up to him right now. Footwork, hands, the guy hasn't played football for a long time. He'll be fine. He works his butt off. He just needs to get his timing down."
Moreover, Neal's presence means 32 fewer snaps for the other players – most importantly, overworked nose tackle B.J. Raji. In Raji's first nine games, he played at least 88 percent of the snaps six times. In the two games since, Raji played 73.0 percent against Tampa Bay and a season-low 61.1 percent against Detroit. Maybe not coincidentally, Raji broke a three-game sack-less streak against the Lions.
"That's the goal is to get a better rotation," Trgovac said. "I think B.J.'s play since we started reducing his snaps has really improved. He's playing with more energy. It's just obvious he knows he doesn't have to be in there for 60, 65 snaps."
Making their points
The Packers lead the NFL in first-quarter scoring (94) and first-half scoring (196), plus are No. 1 in scoring on the first drive of the game (46) .
The Giants have been on the other side of the fast-start spectrum.
In the first three quarters of their games, New York has been outscored 183-150. In the fourth quarter, where Eli Manning has led five game-winning drives, New York has outdueled its opponents 102-94.
During their three-game slide, the Giants offense hasn't scored a touchdown in the first half.
"In the second half, the offense finally started playing better but we needed to play like that for four quarters and not just for the third quarter and part of the fourth," Manning said during his conference call with Packers beat reporters when asked how the Giants lost to New Orleans on Monday despite his 21 consecutive completions. "We had opportunities earlier in the game to get points and get touchdowns. We just didn't come through when we needed to in those situations. We feel that we can move the ball, that we can do good things and score. We've just got to put it all together."
-- The Packers, even after scoring "just" 27 against Detroit, lead the NFL with 34.7 points per game, with New Orleans (32.9), New England (30.1), Detroit (28.7) and Houston (28.6) rounding out the top five. Green Bay is the only team in the league with 24 points in every game, and it's also the only defending Super Bowl champion to score at least 24 in the first 11 games. The 2000 "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams held that record with the first 10 games in 2000.
-- With 382 points through 11 games, the Packers are on pace for 556 points. That would obliterate the franchise record of 461 in 2009. The NFL record is 589 by the 2007 Patriots. If the Packers can protect Aaron Rodgers, they could have a big afternoon. New York's defense is allowing 25.2 points per game and is ranked 26th in the league against the pass.
Won't you let me take you on a sea Cruz
The Giants lost Steve Smith in free agency and veteran Mario Manningham has been dogged by injury problems all season and likely won't play on Sunday. That has forced some young players into bigger roles, including Victor Cruz.
Cruz caught nine passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints last week, had six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown the week prior against Philadelphia and has caught at least six passes in five consecutive games. He leads the team with 55 catches, 957 yards, 17.4 yards per reception and seven touchdowns. Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2010 who played in just three games as a rookie before going on injured reserve.
"He's played outstanding," Giants coach Coughlin said during his conference call. "He's been a guy that, quite frankly, was a totally inexperienced player who had to go to IR a year ago, didn't have any offseason program, came in here and had just a so-so preseason. Yet, as he's been given the opportunity to do more things – it started really with him in Philadelphia and how he played down there very early in the season. He's played well. He's done a lot of very good things. He certainly has demonstrated his speed and quickness and ability to run after the catch."
For the first time, the Packers have opened their season with six consecutive road wins. The 1929, 1936, 1941 and 2007 teams all started 5-0 away from Lambeau Field. In fact, since the implementation of the 16-game season in 1978, the best road record in Packers history are 6-2 marks in 2004 and 2007.
Including playoffs, the Packers have won nine straight away from home, matching the 1966-67 streak, and their 11-3 mark in their last 14 road games (.786) is tops in the league.
"You're always concerned with the distraction that a crowd can bring to your communication system as an offense," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I know it sounds simplistic but the best way to handle the crowd is make a couple of first downs and the crowd's going to get frustrated. I think our guys enjoy the challenge. Coach McCarthy does a great job of getting the guys ready and keeping them in the same routine. I think our guys have fun getting on a plane, going somewhere together and competing at someone else's stadium. Good execution is something you want, whether you're playing in front of the home crowd or an away crowd."
Last week, Rodgers tied the NFL record for fewest starts to reach 15,000 yards, 1,250 completions and 100 touchdowns. He passed those thresholds in 58 starts, tied with Tony Romo and Kurt Warner, and one game faster than Peyton Manning and Dan Marino.
Since becoming the starter in 2008, Rodgers has completed 1,263 passes (second in the NFL) for 15,869 yards (third in NFL) and 119 touchdowns (second in NFL), with a league-best passer rating of 104.7.
More Rodgers numbers
We couldn't get to 21 points without a few Rodgers gems:
-- Rodgers' passer rating is 127.7, just a tick behind Tom Brady's 127.9 from 2007 as the best through 11 games in NFL history. Peyton Manning holds the 11-game record with 41 touchdown passes, with Brady's 39 next and Rodgers third with 33.
-- Talk about dominance: With 33 touchdown passes and four interceptions, Rodgers boasts a league-high touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8.25. Brady is a distant second at 2.80 (28 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) and Alex Smith third at 2.60 (13 touchdowns, five interceptions).
-- Rodgers is the third quarterback in NFL history to start a season with 11 games of two-plus touchdown passes. The others: Johnny Unitas in 1959 and Peyton Manning in 2004.
-- Rodgers is No. 1 this season against the blitz (140.7 rating) and red zone (108.6) and No. 2 on third down (117.3; behind Drew Brees' 120.6). He also tops the heap with a passer rating of 126.9 in road games. He's also tied for first with 28 completions of 25-plus yards.
-- The Packers are 11-0 for the first time in franchise history and are the 11th team to start 11-0 since the Super Bowl era. The Packers are the second defending champion to start 11-0, with Denver opening 13-0 in 1998 en route to winning back-to-back titles by beating Atlanta in the Super Bowl. The Giants handed the Broncos their first loss that season, just like they denied New England a perfect season by winning the Super Bowl following the 2007 season.
-- With a win on Sunday, the Packers would become the eighth team to win at least 18 consecutive games and would join a seven-team logjam of teams for the second-longest streak in history. The Patriots won 21 in a row in 2003 and 2004, and the 2007 Patriots are the most recent of six clubs to win 18 straight.
-- The Packers' offense had better be sharp: The Giants had forced at least one turnover in 23 consecutive games until the streak was snapped last week at New Orleans. New York is tied for fourth in takeaways on fumbles (eight) and tied for ninth in interceptions (14).
-- Manning is the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes in seven consecutive seasons. The others: Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Brett Favre.
-- The schedule-makers have done the Giants no favors. On Monday night, they faced the Saints, who were coming off of their bye. This week, the Giants are on a short week to face the Packers, who are coming off of a mini-bye since playing at Detroit last Thursday. The Giants are 4-3 following Monday night games under Coughlin.
-- The Giants' are 3-0 this season in games when they rushed the ball more than they passed. Their three wins came against St. Louis, Philadelphia and Buffalo. How important is it for the Giants' running game to take center stage? From 2007 through their first 11 games this season, New York is 29-2 in games in which it had run the ball more often than it had passed.
-- Greg Jennings topped 6,000 career receiving yards against Detroit. It took 86 games to reach that milestone, tied with James Lofton for the second-fastest in team history behind Sterling Sharpe's 84 games. That's some sort of company considering Lofton is in the Hall of Fame and Sharpe would have been without a neck injury prematurely ending his career.
-- Speaking of receivers, the Packers are the only team that has five wide receivers with at least 17 catches, and their receiving corps leads the NFL with 2,570 yards and 25 touchdowns.
-- Green Bay leads the NFL with interceptions, which you probably know. But did you know the outlandish margin? The Packers' 22 interceptions are six ahead of second-place Buffalo, Chicago and New England. Moreover, the Packers, Texans and 49ers are tied with a league-low 10 giveaways. That puts Green Bay at a second-ranked plus-15 in turnovers. The Giants are no slouches, ranking fifth at plus-5.
-- The last word goes to Clay Matthews, on talk of an undefeated season: "We're embracing it. We're not shying away from it. The fact is we've been able to do stay undefeated for a little while now. We have to take it 12-0 in order to get to what you were saying (16-0). We'll try and go 12-0 this week against a good New York team and take it from there and then hopefully take it game by game and work towards our ultimate goal."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.