Neal, the Green Bay Packers' second-round pick in 2010, had played in 23 of a possible 55 games over his first three seasons. When the Packers decided to feature Neal as a hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker, it seemed akin to putting too many eggs into a tissue-paper basket.
Neal's battled injuries throughout the second half of this season. The big difference is Neal not only has played but he's played well, a point amplified by his game-turning and season-saving sack-strip of Matt Ryan last week.
"Just those last four years, man, I'm telling you, you dream of those," Neal said. "You dream of those happening and then, when you make them, then you go, ‘OK, I can do this.' I think it builds a lot of confidence. It was probably one of the biggest plays I've made in my life."
What Neal is doing is remarkable. Outside linebacker remains new to him and every practice rep would be valuable. However, over the last five weeks, he's been held out of seven of 14 practices, been limited six times and was full participation just once. The last two weeks, he's been a bystander on Wednesday and Thursday and limited on Friday because of a sore abdominal muscle.
"Obviously, with the injuries, he can't do everything that we want him to do at practice but I don't think he's turned his brain off on the field," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "He's stayed tuned in. He's by my side. At practice, I ask him, ‘What do you see?' He tells me exactly what I want to hear. I think he's fighting through it like a warrior and staying tuned in. We expect those big plays from our outside backers."
The original plan for the season, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday, was for Neal to get "a few snaps" at outside linebacker but be "really feature(d)" as a pass-rushing defensive tackle. Instead, because of the injuries to everyone else at outside linebacker, most of Neal's action has come at outside linebacker.
That's made Neal's own injury problems a hindrance as he tries to fine-tune the physical skills and vision needed to play the position.
"The biggest thing is I'm a person who likes to be hands-on," Neal said. "The biggest thing at outside linebacker, you've got to see things at game speed. You can watch it on film all you want but it's different. I've been able to practice on Fridays and get a look and then go out there on Sunday and do what I do. It's been difficult but, at the same time, it's what you've got to do."
Neal is fourth on the team with four sacks and second with 14 quarterback hits, according to the coaches' film review. He had a season-high three quarterback hits against the Falcons.
Greene is impressed when he looks beyond the sacks.
"I knew that if he believed in it, he was going to be successful," Greene said of the expanded role. "He's done a lot of good things other than just the sack. He's got a couple sacks here and there, a couple tackles for losses. He's done things that normal people really don't notice. He has covered wide receivers vertical in our split-safety, gold pressures. He's done some impressive things dropping in coverage that people would not even notice because he's doing it so good. You wouldn't even notice it because they don't throw it to that guy because he's in pretty good position. He is becoming a fine outside linebacker."
Neal's big sack led to the winning points. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports
2. WILLIAMS' YOGA PARTY
Terrell Owens, of all people, deserves at least a little bit of credit for Tramon Williams' strong play.
Owens remained an elite receiver well into his 30s. Part of his workout regimen was yoga. Williams, who turned 30 in March, started doing yoga, as well.
"I actually got a chance to talk to TO in the offseason," Williams said. "He said he got into it and how much it prolongs your career and things of that nature. I said, ‘OK, that's a good sign. Let me try it out.' I did and I came up to OTAs and was going through those things and was feeling really good, really loose. You can just feel the difference. I continued it during the season and it's been working. I've been feeling really good."
Williams isn't sure if yoga is the reason why he's playing so well. But he's not about to change his routine now.
"Since the midway point, he's really started to play like we've wanted Tramon to play," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "If it's yoga, hell, I'll go pay for it."
The coverage stats at ProFootballFocus.com shouldn't be taken as gospel, but they do tell a story. Take away DeSean Jackson's deflected touchdown in Week 10, and Williams has allowed 146 receiving yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions over the last five games, according to PFF. He perhaps has never tackled better in his career. His six receptions allowed the past three games have included just 8 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus, and he yielded just 14 YAC on five receptions against the Giants.
"I don't know if it's necessarily something that he's done different but his attitude is just simply that he's going to leave it all out there," Whitt said. "There is no cautious play in his play right now. He's singularly focused on each play. That's what he told the guys in the room since the start of the New York game. He said that he didn't care about anything but the play that is coming up next. That's the only thing that he's worried about. Whatever it takes, that's what we need to do. He's been playing well."
He'll need to continue to play well for Sunday's game against Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and the Cowboys' prolific offense. And every solid game down the stretch will only increase his value in the offseason — whether it's Green Bay or elsewhere. Williams is due a $6.9 million base salary in 2014, his final season under contract, and has a cap charge of $7.5 million. That's a lot of money for a 31-year-old cornerback, but he's played exceptionally well for the last several games.
"It's definitely been helping," Williams said of his twice-weekly yoga workouts. "I can feel the difference in my body. You go out there every day, you're loose, you're feeling well, everything's fluid with what you're doing and your focus is there. One thing about yoga, you're doing all the stretching and things but you're also doing mental things to focus. It could be helping."
3. TIGHT ENDS, TAKE 2
Witten, who has 55 catches for 632 yards and seven touchdowns this season, has been a model of consistency. Among tight ends, he's tied with Gonzalez with an NFL-record streak of six consecutive years with 900-plus yards. He's also tied with Gonzalez for No. 1 all-time with four 1,000-yard seasons.
There are three tight ends in NFL history with 800 receptions and 9,000 yards: Witten, Gonzalez and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. Witten got to those thresholds the fastest, with 800 catches in 159 games (Gonzalez, second, 171 games) and 9,000 yards in 160 games (Gonzalez, second, 163 games).
"There's some similarities between those two guys," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "They're both smart players who know all the tricks of the trade. Witten, he's got really good ability of finding openings in zones and run off of your leverage. He's kind of (Tony) Romo's security blanket, kind of like Gonzalez was (Matt) Ryan's security blanket last week."
Last week, the Packers inserted Jarrett Bush into the lineup as the dime defender — promoting Micah Hyde to the nickel and benching Davon House in the process. Bush was elevated to help take away Gonzalez on third down, and the Packers could go that route against Witten.
"JB can play every position in the secondary," Whitt said. "From an understanding and responsibility standpoint, he knows nickel, dime, both safeties and corner. He also can play the buck backer if we needed him to. That's why he's so valuable because he gives a toughness to the team, he gives attention to detail to the team. When he goes in, he gives everything he has. That's why he's here."
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— 4. Another week, another challenge for Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari. DeMarcus Ware, who is playing defensive end for the first time in his professional career with the change to Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, has 117 career sacks. He reached 100 sacks in 113 career games, with only Reggie White (96 games) getting there faster.
"He's a special player," Bakhtiari said. "He's a guy that you've got to prepare for everything. Talking to my coach (offensive line coach James Campen), he brings everything. It's not something where it's, ‘All right, he's got a really good swim.' He throws you the wall. He throws you the playbook of what defensive pass rushers like to do. He's very effective. There's a reason why he has over 100 sacks.
Ware, who has four of the five-best single-season sack totals in Cowboys history, ranks 18th in NFL history and fourth among active players in career sacks. Bakhtiari has had two battles with Minnesota's Jared Allen (14th, 124 sacks) and one with Chicago's Julius Peppers (17th, 118 sacks), plus Baltimore's Terrell Suggs, so he shouldn't be fazed by facing one of the all-time great pass rushers.
Of Ware's 32 career forced fumbles, 26 have come on sacks.
"Definitely going against these players, everything's got to be amped up a little bit more with my awareness," Bakhtiari said. "They say you really can't take plays off in the NFL. Against these guys, you can't take milliseconds off. The slightest move could be him getting right to the quarterback or getting a strip-sack."
— 5. The Cowboys were lampooned by some national pundits, especially ESPN's Ed Werder, for taking Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the first round. According to Werder's anonymous survey of five teams, none had higher than a fourth-round grade on Frederick. (Never mind that two of the three scouts that Packer Report talked to before the draft called him the top center in the draft and a first-round prospect.)
Well, it turns out those national pundits were wrong. Frederick is having an excellent rookie season. He is the NFL's eighth-ranked center, according to grades at ProFootballFocus.com.
"I think Travis has done a really nice job," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said in a conference call. "We really liked him coming out of school. If you remember in the draft last year, there was a rush on offensive linemen early in the draft. I think six of them were taken in the first 11 picks. We had Travis relatively high on our board and just really liked him. He's a smart guy. He's tough. He's physical. And he's been really a Minute One starter for us. Once he came in here for his first OTA practice, we put him in that center position. He responded very well. He reminds me a little bit of an old-time football player. He's got the beard. He's a Wisconsin guy, as you guys know. He's got a toughness to him and it never seems to big for him. He just goes out and plays."
Frederick is the fourth different full-time starting center that Romo has worked with in the past four seasons. He said there were no troubles getting on the same page.
"Not with Travis," Romo said in his conference call. "He's a very serious player that cares about his craft and really puts a lot of effort and time into it, so he picks things up pretty quickly, and he's continually gotten better and better."
Bryant, the Cowboys' fiery first-round pick in 2011, is a budding star. He's caught 70 passes for 908 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"We did an offseason study on him," Whitt said. "He's still developing. We played him his rookie year and he made some plays on us that year. He's a guy that's on the rise and he's going to continue to get better."
Bryant does just about everything well. While he's averaging a so-so 13.0 yards per reception, he's tied for 17th with nine receptions of at least 25 yards. He's also second in the league with five first-down receptions on third-down plays of 3 yards or less. So, whether the ball is thrown short or deep, Bryant is a factor.
"You'll see him in there in the slot at times. You'll see him on the back side in a three-by-one, you'll see him on the front side," Whitt said. "The thing that we better understand (is) what they like to do when he's at each position because they do vastly different things with him and with their offense, depending on where he lines up. We better understand that and know how they're going to attack us."
— 7. The Cowboys, obviously, benefit from not having to race Aaron Rodgers. The Packers, however, will benefit from not facing Dallas middle linebacker Sean Lee and dazzling kick returner Dwayne Harris. Harris entered the week ranked third with a 30.5-yard average on kickoff returns and second with a 14.0-yard average on punt returns. The Packers, of course, have been challenged by their kickoff coverage, which is giving up a next-to-last 27.3 yards per return.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum's scouting report: "I think he reads it and hits it well. He reads the play and he hits it well. When he hits it, he changes the pursuit angles of the defenders."
— 8. The Cowboys are in the playoff race in large part because of their turnover success. They're a third-best plus-12 on the season. After forcing 16 turnovers all of last season, Dallas has 25 takeaways this season. It's been the saving grace for an otherwise bad unit.
"Yeah, they have done a nice job," Packers quarterback Matt Flynn said. "I think they're No. 1 or No.2 in the NFL in fumble recoveries, so they do a good job. They've got a lot of guys with good ball skills, and they play with high effort and really try to surround the ball. So, we've got to take care of it and we've got to execute. We think they're a talented defense. We know what we have to do. We've got to try to work out any of the mistakes that we've been making and play a really clean game, especially there.
Offensively, Romo has thrown just seven interceptions after tossing a league-high 19 last year. Green Bay's defense was starved for takeaways for most of the season but it's gotten six of them the last two games. Only Tampa Bay (seven) has more.
"I think he's doing a really good job making plays for us and also minimizing the bad plays, which is really what every quarterback is trying to get accomplished around the league," Garrett said.
— 9. The Cowboys are a ho-hum 22nd in total offense (328.4 yards per game) but third in scoring (27.5 points per game). How? Turnovers, obviously. Also, Dallas has been lights out in the red zone, with a touchdown rate of 70.7 percent. That's the second-best success rate in the league.
Defensively, Green Bay is a mediocre 15th with a red-zone touchdown rate of 55.6 percent. However, since Week 9, Green Bay has allowed a fifth-ranked touchdown rate of 39.1 percent. It has given up nine touchdowns on 23 red-zone possessions over the past six games.
— 10. Romo boasts the fourth-best passer rating in NFL history (96.0). Rodgers is first at 105.2, followed by Peyton Manning (96.9) and Steve Young (96.8). In the fourth quarter, though, Romo leads the way. His 102.8 rating is No. 1 all-time, with Rodgers second at 100.8.
That late-game success is reflected in his late-game heroics. He's piloted 19 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career, including a 27-23 win against Minnesota on Nov. 3 in which the Cowboys scored the winning touchdown with 35 seconds to play.
Romo has thrown a touchdown pass in a club-record 26 consecutive games.
"He's a veteran guy that's played a lot of football," Capers said. "He's having one of his best guys. He hasn't turned the ball over much. He's got a quick release, a strong arm, he can make all the throws. They've done a pretty good job protecting him. This team hasn't turned the ball over a lot. We're going to have to work to get takeaways."
— 11. This is always a chicken-and-egg sort of stat: The Cowboys are 10-0 when DeMarco Murray gets at least 20 carries.
— 12. Dallas leads the series 16-14, including playoffs, though Green Bay laughed first and laughed last. Dallas, in its inaugural season of 1960, fell to 0-8 by getting crushed 41-7 at City Stadium. In 2010, with Romo out with a broken collarbone, the Cowboys lost 45-7 at Lambeau Field. That loss sent Dallas to 1-7 and cost Wade Phillips his job, with Garrett getting the job on an interim basis.
The Cowboys won eight in a row in the series from 1991 through 1996, including a 42-31 win on Thanksgiving in 1994. With Troy Aikman injured, Garrett completed 15-of-26 passes for 311 yards, including touchdown passes of 45 yards to Alvin Harper and 35 yards to Michael Irvin. Emmitt Smith ran 32 times for 133 yards and a pair of scores as Dallas rallied from a 17-3 deficit.
"Well, that was a long time ago," Garrett said. "I appreciate you remembering. We had some great games against the Packers in the ‘90s. On that particular Thanksgiving, I got a chance to play and really all I was trying to do was function as one-eleventh of the offense and just kind of do my job as best I could. We had some really good players around me and made sure I gave them a chance to do what they do best. It was a great team win for us, a great memory, but, again, it's getting to be a long time ago."
— 13. The 16-14 ledger indicates a close series. That's only partially true. This series has been defined by blowouts. Of the 30 games, 25 have been decided by double-digits, including each of the last 14. Nine of the 30 games have been decided by at least three touchdowns.
— 14. The Cowboys' all-time winning percentage of .572 is second-best in NFL history behind Chicago's .578. Miami is third at .565, Baltimore is fourth at .553 and Green Bay is fifth at .551.
— 15. Romo made his 100th career start against Philadelphia on Oct. 20. Among quarterbacks who made their 100th start in the Super Bowl era, Romo ranks first in yards with 27,485 (Kurt Warner was second with 27,441), first in completions with 2,262 (Warner, second, 2,241) and third in touchdowns with 189 (Rodgers is fourth with 186, though he's started just 86 games).
— 16. Dallas' offensive reputation is of a pass-happy outfit that revolves around Romo and his prolific cast of pass catchers.
The stats back that up. Dallas ranks fifth in run-play percentage at 35.9, according to TeamRankings.com. However, the Cowboys have evolved a bit.
"These guys, early on, were a big three-wide receiver team on first, second and third down," Capers said. "They're using more two tight ends, two wide receivers, and on Monday night, they signed Tyler Clutts, so that's the first time you saw them have a fullback on the roster. They ran quite a few snaps of regular personnel. They hadn't shown that before Monday night."
— 17. On one hand, the Packers' skill players haven't done enough without Rodgers. Green Bay hasn't had a touchdown of longer than 6 yards over the past four weeks. With Rodgers, the Packers scored seven touchdowns of at least 20 yards. Without him, the Packers have scored just two.
On the other hand, Green Bay has the fourth-fewest dropped passes with just 13, according to STATS. Nelson (two), James Jones (two) and Jarrett Boykin (one) have as many drops combined as Bryant, which is anything but a knock on Bryant.
— 18. These are two fast-starting teams. Dallas ranks fourth in the league with 37 points on its first possession while Green Bay ranks sixth with 33 points. The Packers, however, had been shut out on four consecutive game-opening drives until scoring a touchdown last week.
— 19. The NFC North and NFC East are playing each other this season. Green Bay is 1-2 against the East, with a win over Washington and losses to New York and Philadelphia. Dallas is 1-2 against the North, with a win over Minnesota and losses to Detroit and Chicago.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.
— 20. Garrett, on Flynn: "I think he's a smart player, there's no question about that. He has a comfort level in that scheme and has been effective helping offenses throughout his career move the football and score points. I think a lot of that has to do with his understanding of the game, understanding what they want to do offensively but also what defenses are trying to do. I think he's an under-appreciated athlete. I think he can throw the ball well, he moves around and can make a lot of plays."
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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.