Cullen Jenkins, who hasn't played or practiced since re-injuring his calf vs. San Francisco in Week 13, returned as a limited participant during Wednesday's practice. Despite missing five contests this season with the injury, Jenkins ranked No. 2 on the team this season with a career-high seven sacks despite playing with a bulky cast for much of the season to protect a broken hand sustained in the season opener at Philadelphia.
"That would mean the world," defensive end Ryan Pickett said of Jenkins' potential return. "The guy is probably one of the better pass rushers in the NFL. We would love to have him back out there."
Jenkins' problems with the strained calf dated back to training camp this season, but he played in the first six games before he missed the Week 7 contest against the Vikings after re-injuring it during pre-game warm-ups. He missed just the one game before returning for the next five, but aggravated the calf once again in the fourth quarter of a 49ers contest that saw him register a season-high two sacks. Jenkins described that instance as the most severe the injury had been.
While he was limited in Wednesday's shells practice, Jenkins did participate during the team periods, work he said he needed instead of just doing individual drills.
"I told the coaches and the medical staff that I wanted to go out in the team situations so you have to react," Jenkins said. "In reacting, you can't favor it. You have to just adjust out there on the fly. It was pretty good for my confidence to be able to make it through all of that with no problems with it."
Forced to watch his teammates over the final month, including consecutive win-or-go-home games in the final two weeks against the Giants and Bears, Jenkins said staying patient and getting as close to 100 percent was the right move to make.
"It turned out to be a really good thing," Jenkins said. "They played well and they have been buying me extra time. That time turned out to prove pretty big. From last week to this week we are starting to get the strength back a lot better. It is still a lot more that we can get in there, strength and improving, but right now we are really feeling good about it."
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews has once again been the Packers' most consistent pass rusher, leading the team with 13½ sacks this season, but the defense has also seen increased production from B.J. Raji, who led all NFL nose tackles with a career-high 6½ sacks, including four in the final five games. Outside linebacker Erik Walden, signed as a free agent in late October, is coming off a career-best three-sack performance in the season finale.
The Packers were tied for No. 2 in the NFL this season with 47 sacks, their best league ranking in team history, and adding back a presence like Jenkins would be a boost for a defense that will be facing one of the more athletic quarterbacks in NFL history in Michael Vick.
Vick was sacked nine times in the final two games he played (inactive for the season finale), including six times in Philadelphia's 24-14 loss to Minnesota in Week 16. With Matthews and Raji often seeing double-teams from opposing offenses, Jenkins could help free them up from his end spot and as an inside rusher in the Packers' sub packages.
"We're always looking to improve," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "There's no doubt about it. Having Cullen Jenkins back would definitely enhance that. (Rushing the passer) is clearly a strength of Cullen's. Hopefully as we go through this week of practice he'll be ready to go Sunday."
The next step for Jenkins is to see how his calf responds to his first on-field work in a month, and while he admitted that he didn't know how many snaps he would play if he is able to return, the signs so far are encouraging.
"I went through a lot today and it's feeling pretty good," Jenkins said. "We'll just come in tomorrow and see how it feels, see if there is any soreness or anything out of the ordinary. Then just see how the coaches and trainers call it, whether or not they think I should practice again or hold out. We just kind of have to wait and see.
"You never know what could happen between now and then, but the way I feel right now, it would be a go."
Change for the playoffsThis year's postseason will feature a change in the overtime rules from the regular season.
The difference from the sudden-death rules of the regular season is that in the playoffs, the game is not over if the team that wins the coin toss and gets the ball first kicks a field goal. If the team with opening possession ends its first series with a field goal, the game will continue with a kickoff to the other team, at which point that team can attempt to re-tie the game with a field goal of its own or win the contest with a touchdown.
Since the only way an overtime playoff game can end now with only one team possessing the ball is if that team scores a touchdown on the first drive, it could make teams change their approach on that opening series.
"I think it makes (for) a big decision," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "In the past, you get into field-goal range and you could kick it on first, second or third down. Now I think you have to go for the touchdown if you get into that situation."
If the first team to possess the ball doesn't get into the end zone on the opening drive, both teams will get an opportunity to possess the ball before the game ends. If the team with opening possession punts the ball or if it turns the ball over to the other team, the game becomes sudden-death from that moment on. If each team kicks a field goal on their opening possession, it becomes sudden-death after that.
Four of the Packers' past six playoff contests have gone into overtime, including last year's Wild Card contest at Arizona.
"There will be factors during the game, how the game is being played at that particular time will obviously affect the way you decide to approach overtime now with the rule change," McCarthy said. "We have all of the variables in place and it will be part of our game-management discussion on Friday, how we anticipate going into the game. We'll see how the game goes and make the call."
Honors keep comingFor the third time in the past five weeks, a Packers player received a weekly NFC award.
Walden was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Chicago Bears this past Sunday. That comes on the heels of quarterback Aaron Rodgers earning offensive honors in Weeks 13 and 16.
Walden posted the first sacks of his three-year career as he brought down Bears QB Jay Cutler three times in a 10-3 victory that clinched a playoff berth for the Packers.
"I've always been confident in myself," Walden said. "It was just getting out there and getting the opportunity. There are a lot of guys that are great talents, but it's just being blessed with a little luck and getting that opportunity. When it presents itself, you've got to make the best of it."
Walden also recorded a career-high 16 tackles (12 solo), which matched the best total posted by any Packer defender in a game this season. He was part of a defense that limited Cutler to just a 43.5 passer rating as he completed 21-of-39 passes for 168 yards and no TDs with two INTs. It was the third time in the past nine games that the Packers prevented their opponent from scoring a touchdown.
Walden was originally credited with two sacks in the game, but upon reviewing the film, the league gave Walden credit for a third-quarter sack of Cutler that was originally given to defensive end Howard Green. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Walden became the first NFL player to have his first career sack come as part of a three-sack day since Cleveland linebacker Andra Davis recorded four sacks at Kansas City on Nov. 9, 2003.
"It's a new week," Walden said. "Now they want to see if you can do it again. I'm just looking forward to this week. I was proud of the accomplishment, but I am looking for bigger and better things also."
Injury/participation updateSafety Atari Bigby (groin) and linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) did not participate in practice on Wednesday.
Jenkins, tackle Chad Clifton (knees), safety Nick Collins (ribs), fullback Korey Hall (knee) and linebacker Clay Matthews (shin) were limited participants.
Pickett (ankle) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) participated fully in practice.
For Philadelphia, linebacker Stewart Bradley (elbow) and guard Max Jean-Gilles (ankle) did not participate on Wednesday.
Guard Todd Herremans (calf) was limited, while guard Nick Cole (knee), tight end Clay Harbor (abdomen), tackle Winston Justice (knee), defensive tackle Trevor Laws (shoulder), cornerback Asante Samuel (knee) and Vick (quadriceps) all participated fully.
Additional coverage - Jan. 5