The Green Bay Packers overcame all sorts of injuries to win the Super Bowl a season ago, and they're beginning 2011 with another medical hurdle to clear.
Second-year defensive end Mike Neal, who was thought to be the key to replacing departed free agent Cullen Jenkins on the defensive line, will miss a "significant number of weeks" after undergoing surgery on his injured left knee, Head Coach Mike McCarthy announced on Wednesday.
Neal had the procedure done on Tuesday on the knee he hurt in a non-contact drill during the Aug. 16 training camp practice, forcing him to miss the final three preseason games and the regular-season opener. McCarthy did not think Neal was headed for season-ending injured reserve, but the Packers will be without him for the foreseeable future.
"We just have to pick up the pieces. We did it last year," fellow defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "We're just used to it. We're used to adversity."
Added nose tackle B.J. Raji: "It's nothing new to us."
Unfortunately, it's nothing new for Neal, either. Neal played in just two games as a rookie last season, missing the first three games with an abdominal injury and then the final 11 plus the playoffs with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Neal's absence leaves the Packers with just five healthy defensive linemen currently on the 53-man roster. There are no reinforcements at that position currently on the practice squad.
That's the least amount of depth Pickett can recall on a defensive line in his 11-year career, but he said it's just a matter of him and the rest of the linemen – other than Raji, who already plays most of the snaps – preparing physically and mentally to play more on Sundays until Neal comes back.
"Definitely it doesn't help," Raji said of Neal's injury, "but I think the guys that are up on gameday will do the job."
In addition to Pickett and Raji, those guys will be Jarius Wynn (pictured), C.J. Wilson and veteran Howard Green.
All proved themselves at different times a year ago when both Neal and Jenkins were out. Wynn picked up where he left off in last week's opener against the Saints, recording a sack and another tackle for loss on a screen pass, a performance Pickett called "the game of his life."
"Jarius is on this team for a reason," Raji said. "The coaches and players are confident he can get the job done."
It's hard to imagine how frustrated Neal must be at this point. During the lockout, he was rehabbing his shoulder with intense determination – the way in which the former second-round draft pick goes about everything he does.
During training camp, before he got hurt, Neal spoke of the excitement he felt to make an impact in his second season, knowing how much the team would be counting on him without Jenkins.
"He's taking it hard," Pickett said of Neal's latest setback. "He wants to be out there. At the same time, we're reminding him it's a long season, so we need him to get healthy and get back as soon as possible."
In better news on the injury front, cornerback Tramon Williams has "a chance" to play this weekend in Carolina, McCarthy said.
Williams left the Saints game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury sustained when he was hit by teammate Nick Collins as Collins was trying to make a tackle. McCarthy said if the team was on a regular seven-day week between games, he probably would have ruled Williams out; with 10 days between games, he may be ready.
With the team practicing in pads on Thursday, McCarthy said Williams may not practice, but the head coach would be comfortable with Williams playing in the game even if he misses the padded workout.
"Tramon is a veteran player for us and he does a great job with the preparation," McCarthy said. "So we'll give him every chance to make the game." Additional coverage - Sept. 14