Packers' Neal having 'fun' in new role at linebacker
MAY 29, 2013 10:19a ET
When Neal lined up at outside linebacker for a few plays during the first week of Green Bay's offseason training activities, it caught even him by surprise. With a little bit of practice and a detailed discussion with outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, Neal is starting to embrace his new role.
"I enjoy it," Neal said Tuesday in the locker room. "I enjoy anything they ask me to do. It's not stressful. It's allowed me to learn new things that I wasn't able to see with my hand in the dirt. It's allowed me to be able to use my speed and quickness. It's just allowed me to do a whole lot of things that I couldn't do before.
"It's actually fun."
Neal, 25, was drafted by the Packers in the second round in 2010. Several injuries, an NFL suspension and inconsistent play have held Neal back from living up to that high draft billing.
Green Bay's coaching staff is hoping that a change of position is just what Neal needs.
"We're just looking to expand his role," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Looking at him now will probably determine how much we do expand his role. We know what he can do inside. He's done well in there for us when he's been healthy. I just think the more that guys can do as you get into the season, it gives you more flexibility in terms of being able to rush inside or outside or if you want to drop him out. Again, it's an identification issue for an offense."
At first glance, it's difficult to imagine Neal at outside linebacker. He's huge, even by NFL standards. His chiseled body looks like that of a professional powerlifter. But when considering Neal's athletic ability and natural talents as a pass rusher, perhaps it could work with overwhelmingly positive results for the Packers.
"They're trying to make a way for me to get on the field and make plays, because that's what I do best," Neal said.
Neal had 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles last season while playing in 10 games. According to data from ProFootballFocus.com, of Neal's 323 snaps in 2012, 76.5 percent were rushing the quarterback.
Neal acknowledged Tuesday that he struggles in stopping the run, which Capers clearly believed to be true when distributing snaps last season to his defensive linemen. But a switch to outside linebacker won't keep Neal from having to stop the run. It will actually give him more responsibilities.
"Unfortunately, an outside linebacker in a 3-4 (defense) is not just a pass rusher," Greene said. "He's got to cover. Mike Neal is no different. When he plays outside linebacker, he's going to have to understand coverage, the mechanics of different coverage concepts. He's going to have to play the run as an outside linebacker. When he gets a chance to rush the passer, he needs to make hay, obviously, like all the outside linebackers.
"In our multiple-pressure package, when it's your time to rush, you need to make it happen because you don't know if you're going to rush again for another four or five snaps because you're going to be in coverage. A couple of those snaps are going to be runs."
There's no guarantee that Neal will spend the majority of his time at outside linebacker this upcoming season. Capers and Greene wouldn't project how it'd be split, and Neal simply had no idea at this point what to expect.
That uncertainty creates a bit of a problem for Neal, whose listed weight is 40 pounds heavier than the average of the Packers' current group of outside linebackers. Neal hasn't been asked to lose weight, but it may come to that if the transition becomes more permanent.
"He's probably 280-ish now, hopefully a tad lighter," Greene said. "He can do everything where he is; Being 280 pounds and being fluid enough to play outside linebacker."
The biggest learning curve that Greene is trying to help Neal through is with increasing his vision.
"As a stand-up guy, you have to be able to acquire in your vision all five eligibles and know what they mean to your coverage assignment," Greene said. "If anybody moves or shifts or motions or whatever, that changes to a whole other level of coverage."
This experiment with Neal, along with selecting outside linebacker Nick Perry in the first round of the 2012 draft, is all part of the team's attempt at finding players who can take some pressure off of Clay Matthews. Last season, Matthews finished with 13 sacks despite being frequently double-teamed. Even with the extra attention from opposing offenses on stopping Matthews, Green Bay's next-best sack-producer was Neal with 4.5 sacks. That's a big drop off and one that the Packers want to fix.
Matthews has already spoken with Neal about playing outside linebacker and has been offering words of encouragement.
"Me and Clay have always been pretty cool," Neal said. "Clay just looks at it as, 'You're an athlete. The more they ask you to do, the more value you have to the team.' KG (Kevin Greene) is telling me, 'The biggest thing with you is you have a lot of athleticism in your body that I don't even think you were aware of.' It's just, 'How do we get that out of him? We can expose you to certain things and see how you react to it. I think you'll be fine. You've got so much bottled in, just air it out and let it go.'
"I think working with KG is great for me. It just gives me another dynamic to the game and allows me to see it from another perspective."
Though the NFL season is still months away, the success of this transition for Neal could be a significant part of how Green Bay's defense is able to perform. It's going to take time, but the early signs have been promising for Neal and for the Packers.
"He's a very unique individual," Greene said of Neal. "He has a high work ethic and he's hungry. As a coach, you can work with that."
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