Neal Becomes Key Chess Piece for Defense

Dom Capers' defense lacks playmaking firepower, especially at outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews. Perhaps Mike Neal will be part of the solution. Neal, who was among the top interior rushers in the league last season, could rush from tackle on one play and linebacker the next.

Two weeks ago, an agent for another of the Green Bay Packers' defensive linemen said Mike Neal was being moved to outside linebacker.

Nonetheless, after lining up at outside linebacker and his usual spot as a defensive tackle in the nickel and dime packages, Neal on Tuesday said he was "clueless" about what's in store.

"I don't know. I'm just as clueless as you are, honestly," Neal said after practice. "When I got here, it was just like, ‘Hey, go upstairs. We've got to talk to you about something.' And it was, ‘Hey, we're going to try and move you around a little bit. We're going to try and expand your role. We want to get familiar with all facets of the game and we'll take it from there.' And that's pretty much it."

At the Scouting Combine in 2010, Neal ran the 40-yard dash in 4.87 seconds. At the time, he was listed at 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds. That's identical to his height and stated weight on the roster distributed at practice. Neal said only that he's "light enough" to play outside linebacker but heavy enough to have a role on the defensive line.

After injuries limited him to nine of a possible 32 games during his first two seasons, Neal played in 11 of the final 12 games last season after serving a four-game suspension for breaking the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He had a breakout season with 4.5 sacks. His 20 total pressures in 192 pass-rushing snaps gave him the third-best pass rushing performance rating of any 3-4 defensive end in the league, according to

"Schematically, we're going to do some different things and we're going to expand Mike Neal's role," coach Mike McCarthy said. "All the specifics of that, I'm sure we can wait until Week 1 to get in to all of that."

Outside linebacker is the marquee position in a 3-4 defense but the Packers have failed miserably in giving Clay Matthews a reliable right-hand man. In four seasons and 58 games, Matthews has a total of 42.5 sacks. Eight other outside linebackers have combined for 31.5 sacks over 64 games. Not once have the Packers received more than four sacks from any of their other outside linebackers. So, Neal potentially provides another option in a rotation or package involving Nick Perry (two sacks in six games as a first-round pick in 2012), Dezman Moses (four sacks in 16 games as an undrafted rookie in 2012) and Nate Palmer (sixth round, 2013).

"I'm comfortable in my athletic ability," Neal said. "I do believe that for a defensive linemen, not only do I have defensive lineman skills but I think that, as far as me athletically (at linebacker), I think that I can do that. I've never doubted my athletic ability. I feel a lot more agile than I have in the past. I'm a lot more confident in myself than I have been in the past."

A position switch would have two positive byproducts.

First, Neal has battled knee problems, so any weight loss would relieve some of the stress.

"The best I have (felt)," Neal said, "and I hope that continues."

Second, letting the Packers' new-look offensive tackles square off against Matthews on one play and Neal the next will provide diverse training.

"OTAs is a good start for (moving to left tackle) against guys like Clay and Mike Neal," Bryan Bulaga said. "That's good. That's only going to help me. It's going to help footwork-wise and seeing different looks."

For a team sorely lacking in proven playmakers with its defensive line and linebackers, it makes sense to give Neal more of a featured role. Whether it's Neal standing up at outside linebacker, rushing from defensive tackle or dropping into coverage in a zone blitz, a healthy Neal could be a nice chess piece for coordinator Dom Capers.

"It's pretty much just almost expanding my role," Neal said. "Just gives me more opportunities to use what I've got. You look at an outside linebacker in our defense. They've got to be athletic. They've still got to be strong. They've still got to be able to move. They've got to have agility. I think I possess all of those skills."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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