After playing in nine of a possible 32 regular-season games in two injury-plagued seasons, Neal will begin serving his four-game suspension at 8 p.m. Friday. Rather than practicing Monday for next week's season-opening showdown against San Francisco, Neal will return to Florida, where he trains during the offseason.
"Work. That's all I know how to do is work," said Neal, who won't be allowed any contact with the team during a suspension for the unauthorized use of Adderall, a prescription drug used to fight ADHD. "I'm going to get out of here and let my body rest for about five days and then go to work."
If there was any doubt about Neal's future with the team, his extensive playing time against the Chiefs answered those questions. Neal, a second-round pick in 2010, missed most of his rookie year with a shoulder injury and missed nine games and never was at full strength last season because of a knee injury sustained in training camp. The injury history and lack of production put his spot on the roster in jeopardy, but Neal responded with a strong training camp. Neal barely played in the second and third preseason games as defensive line coach Mike Trgovac focused on the players who will be in the mix for the first four games. Thursday night was Neal's time to shine as the defensive starters played just the opening series.
"Tonight, they said, ‘Mike, you're going to play a lot tonight,'" Neal said. "That was pretty much the message: Get you in there early, get you warmed up and go out there and have a ball."
Neal was a menace against the Chiefs, even though the official stats show his output was a meager two assisted tackles. In his first series, he blasted into the backfield but was unable to make the play as Shaun Draughn rushed for 4 yards. Early in the second quarter, Neal had a pressure as the Chiefs converted a third-and-9. Later in the quarter, he got in the backfield to help stop a third-and-1. Finally, before halftime, he lined up as a stand-up defensive end on the right side and mounted a mighty bull rush that led to rookie Mike Daniels' sack.
"I haven't felt that good in a long time," he said. "I had a lot of fun. That was probably the most fun I've had in the last two years, so it's going to be tough to sit out. I can only do nothing but build on it."
Neal said he'll meet with Trgovac on Friday morning to chart a course for the next four weeks. He's optimistic he can make an impact quickly upon his return, drawing upon the lack of rust he felt from a five-week layoff between the end of offseason workouts to the start of training camp. He's also optimistic about his health. Neal took a lengthy break at the end of last season to allow his knee to heal. His explosion off the ball shows just how much better he's feeling. Now, he gets four weeks off, and upon his return, he'll have a five-game stretch before the bye.
"This the best I've felt, so to be able to come in and do what I did and now I have to sit out for four weeks, it's not fun," Neal said. "But I had a heck of an OTA (and minicamp) and I sat out four weeks and came back and had a good camp. I think the momentum is going to keep going."
Still, the ever-positive Neal couldn't help but see Thursday as a bittersweet performance. Since entering the league, he's never played so well over such a consistent period. Instead of cranking it up another notch for the 49ers, Bears, Seahawks and Saints, Neal will be cranking it up in the weight room and keeping tabs on his teammates from a thousand miles away.
"When I first started camp, you look at it that I've got all camp, man," he said. "Now that it's here, when I was walking off the field, reality hit that I'm not going to be able to go out there for the season opener. I think I would have had a chance to get a significant amount of snaps if I was there to play. It sucks but you've got to deal with what you've got to deal with."
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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.