Secondary Nearing Full Strength

Green Bay's defensive backfield is coming off perhaps their finest performance of the season against a high-powered Indianapolis Colts offense on Sunday, and after this weekend's bye they could very well benefit from the return of two starters in cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby.

Harris, who has missed the past four games because of a spleen injury sustained in a collision with linebacker A.J. Hawk in the first half of the Sept. 21 game vs. Dallas, said Tuesday that he "feels good" and is now just waiting to be cleared to return to the field by the team's doctor.

Bigby, who has been sidelined the past five games after sustaining a hamstring injury toward the end of the first half at Detroit in Week 2, practiced last Thursday but wasn't able to finish the workout. The team elected to hold him out Sunday with the hope he could return following the bye.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that he was "hopeful" Harris would be able to play at Tennessee on Nov. 2, the Packers' next game.

"It's been tough," Harris said. "I'm glad we are back on the winning side of the record part of it, but it's been tough."

Harris had never missed a game in his NFL career, playing in 175 consecutive games before the injury. While he has been around the team quite a bit working out at Lambeau Field, watching his teammates play proved much more challenging.

"I stayed away as far as watching, studying, anything," Harris said. "I kind of concentrated on my family and kids just to get my mind off of it."

Although Harris said he was surprised by the diagnosis of the injured spleen, he added that he did not have any doubts that he would play again in '08.

"They can tell you whatever they want to tell you, but I knew that it wasn't over for the year," Harris said.

"That was the last thing on my mind that I had some internal injury from getting hit in my side. I really didn't know what it was, but I didn't think I was going to come in the locker room and be out for six weeks either."

Harris said that he is not worried about being tentative when he returns to full contact, and that he feels ready conditioning-wise to return to practice next week. He said he is not sure if he will wear any type of extra protection during a game and that would be dictated by the trainers.

Another member of the secondary nearing full strength is cornerback Charles Woodson, who hasn't missed a game this season despite playing with a fractured toe sustained in the season-opening win vs. Minnesota.

Woodson, who has not been on the practice field other than participating in an occasional jog-through since Week 1, said that the toe is no longer an issue.

"Remarkably it was able to heal during the time I played and the last X-ray I took showed new bone growth," Woodson said. "This last Sunday I didn't even tape it up and play. I still cut a hole in the side of my shoe just to give it some room, but other than that I am playing mostly pain-free with the toe. It feels good."

Woodson said he may return to a practice routine similar to last season's schedule when he was limited on Wednesday and Thursday to get rest and then practiced on Friday.

The injury hasn't affected Woodson's performance as he is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions and also tied for the league lead with two interception returns for touchdowns.

The Packers' pass defense is No. 9 in the NFL and the team leads the league in interceptions with 13, all of which have come from their defensive backs.

Green Bay has also returned five interceptions for touchdowns, standing just one away from the team record of six set in 1966 with nine games to play.

While the team certainly missed having the Pro Bowler Harris in the lineup the past four games, younger players such as second-year cornerback Tramon Williams and third-year cornerback Will Blackmon have answered the call in his absence.

"We'll be happy when (Al) is back out there suited up for us," Woodson said. "The one good thing about it is that the young guys have gotten a lot of repetitions as far as practice is concerned and also games.

"When Al is back and we go to our nickel packages we know our guys have a lot of time in there in game situations gaining a lot of experience."

{sportsad300}The development of Williams, who has started at Harris' right cornerback spot, and Blackmon, who has handled the nickel duties, was evident in Sunday's win over the Colts.

Blackmon, matched up with eight-time Pro Bowl WR Marvin Harrison for most of the afternoon, limited him to just 11 yards on two receptions. Williams registered six tackles and a pass breakup, and is tied for third in the NFC with a career-high three interceptions already this season.

Second-year safety Aaron Rouse, who started Sunday for the fourth game this season in place of Bigby, led the defensive backfield with 11 tackles against the Colts and etched his name in the team's record book with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

"For all of the young guys that have stepped up in a time where a lot of the veterans are banged up and out of the game, it shows you the level of detail that they have worked on throughout the weeks with the coaches and practice and going in there and playing at a very high level," Woodson said. "We tip our hat to those guys for being professionals."

Standing at 4-3 in a tie atop the NFC North with Chicago at the bye despite losing two key members of the secondary for significant time, Woodson said he feels like the team has weathered a challenge, but knows that more lie ahead.

"It was a tough stretch, especially injuries and the three-game losing skid we were on, but it's not going to be any easier," Woodson said. "We come off the break and we're going against a team that could possibly still be undefeated when we go down to Tennessee.

"For this team it's about staying focused and not getting too far away from the game mentally with this time off and be ready to go when we play Tennessee."

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