GREEN BAY, Wis. There was unanimous agreement in the Packers' locker room following Sunday's Week 4 win that their defense had just faced its most difficult challenge of the season against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints offense.
Green Bay's defense allowed 474 yards (the most this season) and did not force a turnover, but after studying the game film Monday, defensive coordinator Dom Capers was relatively encouraged by his group's performance.
"I never get too up or too down on things," Capers said. "I'm encouraged by where I think we can be. I'm much more encouraged right now than I probably was -- even last year, we were exceptional at getting takeaways. (Sunday), that's the way these games go. We had our hands on two or three balls, and if we get them, it changes the whole game around.
"You only get so many opportunities, so when you get them you have to convert them. I feel good about our guys' ability to do that. I think they'll come because based out of the three years I've been here, I think we've been the leader or one of the leaders for getting the ball taken away, and that's a big part of the game."
For a Packers defense that led the NFL in interceptions in 2011, there haven't been nearly as many so far this season. Green Bay had four interceptions in Week 2 against Chicago's Jay Cutler, but have not had any in the other three games this season.
"That stuff can change around in a real hurry," Capers said. "I think the key is as long as you have the elements, guys breaking to the ball and you're getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, those things fit together. It's going to change."
Through four games, the Packers rank 13th in the NFL with four interceptions, well below the league-leading St. Louis Rams at eight.
There was a near-interception in the second half of Sunday's game when linebacker D.J. Smith batted a pass from Brees into the air. But as cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Morgan Burnett both went for it, they collided and the ball fell to the ground.
"I think both of them kind of lost vision of each other," Capers said. "Morgan, the ball was tipped, and he was going aggressively for the ball, and Tramon was sitting there waiting for it to come down, and they knocked each other off. I've seen it happen a number of times.
"You'd like to be able to communicate on that, but it's a bam-bam deal, so it's a reaction deal. I know if we had that one back, if they had any idea, one of them would've backed off."
Neal returns from suspension: After sitting at home for the past month, defensive end Mike Neal is back with the Packers. Suspended for the first four games of the regular season by the NFL for a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, Neal is able to rejoin the team this week for practice and is allowed to play this upcoming Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
For now, coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson do not have to clear a roster spot in order for Neal to return. That is because the Packers have been granted a one-week roster exemption for Neal. But one week from now, if Green Bay wants to keep Neal on its roster, another player would have to be released.
"I think it's very important for Mike Neal to go through a week's practice," McCarthy said. "We need to see where he is. We know Mike's been working out, I'm sure. I've not seen him yet personally, but just knowing Mike, as far as his training habits, he's always in top shape.
"He hasn't been practicing football for four weeks. We will take him through the full week and see where he is."
Considering that defensive end Phillip Merling was on Sunday's inactive list despite being healthy, the decision next week on whether to keep Neal will likely come down to how he performs in comparison to Merling.
Starks' future: Merling was just one of several healthy Packers players that were inactive Sunday. Making those decisions is the one difficult part for McCarthy about having more than 46 players who are healthy enough to play.
Running back James Starks -- who was listed on the injury report as probable -- and tight end D.J. Williams (who had no listed injuries) were both inactive against the Saints.
"Going from 53 (players) to 46 (on game day) is difficult when you have healthy bodies," McCarthy said. "That's why it's so important for guys, are they hurt or are they injured? There's nothing worse than going with a guy that you think's going to play the whole game and he plays 10 snaps and then you have two or three or four or five healthy individuals on the sidelines in sweat pants.
"That's why every week is a challenge and those decisions really come down to special teams. When it's one guy over the other, the determining factor 99-percent of the time is special teams."
Though Starks is healthy enough to play, McCarthy opted to keep running backs Alex Green and Brandon Saine on the gameday roster ahead of him. But McCarthy isn't sure if that's how he'll continue to set his lineup in the coming weeks.
"That is answered during the course of the week," McCarthy said. "The way we do it here, is we have our 53 guys . . . We'll have the players we feel very good about being up and there will probably be, probably 12, 10, somewhere in there, names on the other side of the board, and could be three or four guys competing with somebody else to get up that week.
"That's why we're always moving our reps and preparation around during the course of the week. We don't ever start a game-plan on Monday and say, 'These 46 guys are playing this week,' because sometimes things happen, people get sick at the end of the week. So if you give one guy all the snaps and you don't give his backup any of the snaps and something happens Thursday, Friday or Saturday, you really didn't do a very good job of preparing the guy that's playing in the game."
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