After missing the entire preseason as he recovered from offseason knee surgery, defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will likely make his return to the field on Monday night vs. Minnesota, a team he enjoyed some success against last season.
Gbaja-Biamila finished second on the team with 9 1/2 sacks in 2007, and more than half of those came against the division rival Vikings. At the Metrodome last September, Gbaja-Biamila posted his franchise-best fifth three-sack game of his career, plus a forced fumble and a pass defensed. His final sack of the afternoon put him at 69 on his career, surpassing Reggie White's 68 1/2 to give him the franchise career record.
Gbaja-Biamila followed that performance up in November with two more sacks in Green Bay's 34-0 win over Minnesota at Lambeau Field. Despite the success he enjoyed last year, and his one-on-one matchup changing from Bryant McKinnie to Artis Hicks, 'KGB' said his approach for this game will remain the same.
"I don't want to ever underestimate any players," Gbaja-Biamila said. "Sometimes you go in there and they might chip you more. Usually it was just me and McKinnie, so they may bring chippers or some ways to help (Hicks) out."
McKinnie was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Getting the start in his place will be seven-year veteran Hicks, who has started 18 games the past two seasons for Minnesota, but all of them at guard.
Hicks does have some experience filling in at left tackle on a national stage from his time in Philadelphia. In his second season in '03, he started in place of an injured Tra Thomas on Monday Night Football at Miami when Thomas went down just hours before the game with back spasms. Matched up with perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor, Hicks held him to just one sack.
"Artis is a natural left-sided guy, and I have said that before," Vikings head coach Brad Childress said. "He is comfortable in a left-handed stance and he played left guard for us in Philadelphia. I did have the opportunity to watch him play with about three hours notice against Taylor. He understands what it means over there and he understands the timing over there."
After missing the first three preseason games, Gbaja-Biamila had hoped to get on the field for a few snaps against Tennessee in the preseason finale, but experienced some soreness and swelling after practicing two days last week. His presence was missed during the preseason as the Packers recorded only two sacks in four games.
Gbaja-Biamila returned to the field Monday, took a planned day off on Tuesday, and was back in action for all of practice Thursday.
"It was a great practice today and I felt good," Gbaja-Biamila said. "I was excited. There was even a time where 'Big Daddy' (defensive ends coach Carl Hairston) was trying to get me out but I wanted to just get my conditioning back up. I said, 'No, I'm staying in.' I came out strong. I felt stronger coming out."
Even with all of the time missed during OTAs, mini-camp, and training camp, Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he was impressed with how Gbaja-Biamila looked and didn't notice any signs of rust.
"I thought he practiced extremely well earlier in the week and I thought he looked very explosive out there today," McCarthy said. "Now, we haven't watched the film yet, but just standing behind the quarterback in the opponent work, he was definitely getting off the ball and applying pressure like he normally does."
Time to refine
In last season's opener, Mason Crosby kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired in his NFL debut to give the Packers a 16-13 win over Philadelphia.
After Monday's release of punter/holder Jon Ryan, the week for Crosby heading into this year's opener will focus on getting acclimated to a new holder, punter Derrick Frost, who signed on Monday after playing the past three seasons for Washington.
"Some guys like the ball held in different ways, and Mason is pretty easygoing when it comes to that," Frost said. "I think he would agree that things are going pretty well. We're working a little overtime trying to get more holds in, and for the most part I think things are going terrific."
Frost will catching the ball from another recent addition to the roster, long snapper Brett Goode, who also signed with the team on Monday after long snapper J.J. Jansen was placed on injured reserve due to a knee injury.
Frost said with the Packers playing on Monday night, the trio will benefit from the extra day of preparation working together.
"I could understand the concern," Frost said. "You change the whole operation, the snap and the hold, but I'm not concerned about it. The extra day is big time. We're going to just continue to work and I have no reason to expect that things aren't going to just keep going great."
Hawk gets some work
Linebacker A.J. Hawk returned to the field for the first time since sustaining a chest injury in the preseason opener vs. Cincinnati. He had limited participation in Thursday's practice.
"I thought he looked good just from watching him on the field today," McCarthy said. "I have not watched the film yet, but he looked like his normal self. He was flying around at practice and he is a very physical player, so it was good to have him back out there."
Hawk, who has never missed a game in the NFL or in college, is anxious to get back on the field, according to McCarthy, but he added that it comes down to Hawk being cleared to play by the team doctor, Patrick McKenzie.
"Any time that a player is injured, you have a medical report where they may feel there is a certain period of time that the player has to go through," McCarthy said. "Then you have the individual, and we knew that A.J. was going to rehab at a rapid pace, and in his mind he feels he has been ready for quite some time. So it is a combination of the individual and it is a combination of the doctor's report."
The Packers had 12 players on the injury report on Thursday, with guard Josh Sitton listed as out (knee) and wide receiver James Jones (knee) and center Scott Wells (trunk) not participating in practice.
In addition to Hawk, limited participants were safeties Charlie Peprah (hamstring) and Atari Bigby (ankle), tackle Chad Clifton (chest/knees), defensive end Jeremy Thompson (groin), linebacker Tracy White (ankle) and cornerback Charles Woodson (not injury related).
Woodson, who was not on Wednesday's injury report, was experiencing some soreness and will likely practice on Friday, according to McCarthy.
Gbaja-Biamila and running back Ryan Grant (hamstring) both participated fully in practice.