Help is on the way for the Green Bay Packers' banged-up defense, and it can't come soon enough.
Coach Mike McCarthy said cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby are far enough along in their recovery from injuries to begin practicing on Wednesday, along with rookie running back James Starks.
Harris, Bigby and Starks began the season on the Packers' reserve/physically unable to perform list and are eligible to come off this week. Once the players begin practicing, the Packers have three weeks to decide whether to put them on the active roster.
"They can't do any more than they've done from a rehab standpoint," McCarthy said Monday. "So it's time to cut those guys loose. I know they're excited about it, and we're excited to get them on the practice field."
The Packers also beefed up their defense in a trade with Jacksonville to acquire safety Anthony Smith, a player Green Bay signed as a free agent in 2009 but cut before the season.
After losing back-to-back games in overtime, the Packers are preparing for a home game against Minnesota this weekend in dire need of reinforcements.
They were without eight starters because of injuries in Sunday's loss to Miami, including five on defense — and two of their defensive starters on Sunday, defensive end C.J. Wilson and safety Charlie Peprah, are third-stringers.
Beyond that, McCarthy said outside linebacker Brady Poppinga will have arthroscopic knee surgery and no timeline has been established for his return.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he was eager to see Harris and Bigby return, along with other injured players such as outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who sat out Sunday's game with a left hamstring injury.
"We're getting hopefully two studs back this week on defense, three if you count Clay," Rodgers said. "We need those guys back. We need to be at full force. No excuses, obviously."
And while McCarthy has received positive medical reports about Harris, Bigby and Starks — a sixth-round pick out of Buffalo who hurt his hamstring in offseason workouts and didn't play during his senior season because of a shoulder injury — he needs to see them in practice.
"When you're the head coach and you talk to players about injuries, they're always fine," McCarthy said. "They're always playing this week, and they're always good. And you appreciate that. But we'll find out about those guys Wednesday."
Harris is recovering from a season-ending left knee injury last November. Tramon Williams has played well after moving up from the Packers' No. 3 cornerback to fill in, but a healthy Harris would give the Packers three good, experienced cornerbacks.
Bigby's hard hits and big plays energized the defense during the 2007 season, but he has struggled with injuries since then. He skipped offseason workouts, hoping for a long-term contract, but showed up for training camp on time only to aggravate a left ankle injury. He needed surgery.
He was replaced by rookie Morgan Burnett, a third-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, but Burnett tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a victory over Detroit earlier this month. Backup Derrick Martin also is on injured reserve with a knee injury.
It will be Smith's second stint in Green Bay. The Packers signed him as a free agent in 2009 but cut him before the start of the season, a move that was publicly criticized at the time by veteran cornerback Charles Woodson.
"Anthony has a history with us, has played in this defense, and we think he is a good fit," McCarthy said. "It will be great to have him back."