Packers' defensive depth tested after Neal injury
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP)
Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Green Bay Packers must find a way to replace a key player after an injury.
Defensive end Mike Neal had surgery this week after a lingering left knee injury from training camp unexpectedly became a long-term issue. Neal isn't expected to go on injured reserve, but he will miss what Packers coach Mike McCarthy called a "significant" amount of time and the team will have to find a way to replace him going into Sunday's game at Carolina.
"Obviously, Mike's a big loss for us but this is a team that's been overcoming injuries the whole season so it's nothing new to us," defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "The next guy has to step up, and we've done just that. If Mike is injured, there's nothing we can do about it."
Neal, a second-round pick out of Purdue last season, was supposed to be the Packers' primary replacement for departed free agent Cullen Jenkins. Now unheralded players such as Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson must find a way to handle the role - although it helps that the Packers use an extra defensive back so frequently that they often have two, or even just one, defensive lineman on the field.
Wynn, a sixth-round pick by the Packers in 2009, was waived coming out of training camp last season, then re-signed a few weeks later after the Packers were hit with injuries. He played well in last week's season-opening victory over New Orleans, including a sack and an assist on a tackle for loss on a critical defensive stop just before halftime.
"It was awful," Wynn said of getting cut last year. "It was a bad feeling. But it was a learning experience at the end of the day. You have to look at everything in a positive way, and it was tough, but I also decided, 'If I get another opportunity, I'm going to make the best of it.'"
The Packers also might be without cornerback Tramon Williams on Sunday because of a bruised shoulder. And they're desperately short of backups at outside linebacker with injuries to Frank Zombo, who is out indefinitely after breaking his shoulder blade, and Vic So'oto, whose back injury has flared up.
Depth was perhaps Green Bay's biggest strength last season, as the Packers found ways to power through a jaw-dropping list of season-ending injuries and still win the Super Bowl. As hard as the Packers were hit, many injuries came at positions where the team had a viable backup plan.
If the injuries start to pile up again, it remains to be seen if the Packers have the depth to do it again.
When rookie safety Morgan Burnett went down last year, Charlie Peprah stepped in - and Peprah is still around, giving the team veteran depth should Burnett or Nick Collins get injured. But in terms of rock-solid insurance policies on defense, that's about it. As defensive coordinator Dom Capers noted during camp, the depth he has on his side of the ball this season is relatively young and untested.
The most obvious example is at inside linebacker. When Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar were lost for the season last year, the Packers had A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop waiting. Barnett and Chillar are gone, Hawk and Bishop are the starters and the Packers now have untested players such as Robert Francois and sixth-round rookie D.J. Smith as their primary backups.
Capers said recently that having young players as backups does have an upside: They're hungry.
That's certainly the case with Wynn, who didn't understand why the Packers cut him coming out of training camp last year and chose to keep oft-injured former first-round pick Justin Harrell.
"I can't say he did as much as I did," Wynn said. "I never know what they're thinking. I just decided to work hard so I'd never be put in that situation again."
Pickett said Wynn had the "biggest game of his life" against New Orleans last week, and he seems to have the respect of his teammates.
"I believed in him all along," Raji said. "We came in together. I saw how hard he's worked. In the offseason, I talked to him quite a bit and know how much he worked out. I'm not surprised."
Meanwhile, it's another setback for Neal, who is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury last year.
"He's taking it hard," Pickett said. "He wanted to be out there. ... It hurts him that he can't. At the same time, we're trying to remind him it's a long season. So we just need him to get healthy and get back as soon as possible."
Connect with AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins: www.twitter.com/ByChrisJenkins