GREEN BAY, Wis. – Over the past four seasons, the Green Bay Packers have intercepted 103 passes — 17 more than any team in the league.
This season, the Packers have just three. Only the Jets have fewer with two.
So, the anticipated return of cornerback Casey Hayward, who missed the first six games of the season with an injured hamstring, could add a much-needed playmaker to a defense that's allowed just 39 points during a three-game winning streak.
"Casey Hayward has excellent ball skills," said coach Mike McCarthy, who listed Hayward as probable for Sunday night's game at NFC North rival Minnesota. "When it comes to route recognition, jumping routes and things like that, for a young player, he does it very well. We do need a spark."
It's been a frustrating season for Hayward, who was selected to the NFL's All-Rookie team last season after leading all first-year players with six interceptions, good for fifth overall. Hayward was out at the start of training camp with a hamstring he injured during offseason training. He came back briefly in training camp, only to aggravate the injury during the Aug. 23 preseason game against Seattle.
This time, the Packers have brought Hayward along slowly. Last week, he was limited at all three practices and was an inactive against Cleveland. This week, Hayward was a full participant for three days of practice.
"Last time, I felt good coming back and I came back as soon as I felt good," Hayward said. "This time, I've been feeling good for a couple weeks. Hopefully this time, we hit it on the head and we don't have any setbacks."
While playing-time decisions hadn't been made, it's likely the team will maintain its cautious approach and limit Hayward's minutes Sunday in Minnesota.
"We'll be anxious to see him get back in there," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He's had a good week of practice. It's been a long time since he's been out there so it'll be a gradual progression with Casey. But it's nice to have him back because he brings ball skills and the ability to make plays."
That playmaking ability has been missed. He picked off a pass in his one and only preseason game. In his absence, Davon House and Sam Shields have the secondary's only interceptions through the first six games.
"I hope I can hit the ground rolling," Hayward said. 'Whenever I get my opportunity to get out there, hopefully I can go out there and make plays and be an impact player for this defense."
The Packers got more good news on Friday with outside linebacker Nick Perry returning to practice. He had been out since injuring a foot on a sack just before halftime of the Baltimore game. Perry, who is listed as questionable, would bolster a unit that got by with just Mike Neal and rookies Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba against the Browns.
Among other key players, receiver James Jones (knee) is doubtful after not practicing all week, and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb) and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) are out. Finley was released from a local hospital on Thursday and was at the stadium on Friday morning.
"He looks good," McCarthy said. "Looked like a dang movie star walking in there with sunglasses. It was good to see him. Big smile on his face. It's great to have him back in the building. My understanding is they will continue to do more tests. That information is being sent to the specialist and then we'll have to make a decision."
NOTES: Minnesota ruled out quarterback Josh Freeman (concussion) and will start Christian Ponder, who beat the Packers in Week 17 last season. Capers said he started the week preparing for Freeman but switched gears to Ponder on Wednesday. "Obviously, it does affect your game plan a little bit, but we've certainly gone against Ponder so we know what kind of quarterback he is," Capers said. "He's a very good athlete, gives them some versatility in terms of his ability to bootleg and throw the ball outside the pocket. Has a strong arm. You combine his ability to move along with (Adrian) Peterson running the football, that creates a big challenge." . Without Finley, Jones and Randall Cobb (broken fibula), Jordy Nelson is the last man standing from the Packers' prolific early season passing attack.