Barnett Active As Defensive Leader

Nick Barnett’s 14-tackle performance in the season opener on Sunday against Philadelphia wasn’t just a matter of the fifth-year pro being in the right place at the right time. Barnett was seemingly in every place at every time. - More Packers-Giants Game Center


A middle linebacker generally is expected to make a lot of tackles, simply because of the position he plays and where he lines up on the field. He's right in the middle of the action, but off the line of scrimmage and not immediately engaged by a blocker.

But Nick Barnett's 14-tackle performance in the season opener on Sunday against Philadelphia wasn't just a matter of the fifth-year pro being in the right place at the right time.

Barnett was seemingly in every place at every time. He was plugging the middle, knifing into the backfield, running down ballcarriers to either sideline or sticking with them in pass coverage. The press box statisticians credited Barnett with 13 tackles, including nine solo stops, and those numbers were upped to 14 tackles with 11 solo (one shy of his 2006 season highs in both categories) after the Packers coaching staff reviewed the film.

"He was outstanding in a lot of different areas -- in coverage, his assignments, his communication to the front, getting everybody lined up, as well as the impact tackles, chasing the ball, eliminating big runs," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "Just a lot of positive plays on Nick's part."

Barnett was a force the entire day, making impact plays both early and late in the game.

In the first quarter, on Philadelphia's second possession, Barnett dropped into coverage and leaped to intercept a Donovan McNabb pass intended for do-everything running back Brian Westbrook.

The turnover, which set up a field goal, showed not only a great reaction by Barnett to turn his body quickly while the ball was in the air, but also tremendous hands to snatch it cleanly without a bobble.

"That was a tough play for him," Sanders said. "He caught it at its highest point, he clamped down and assured the catch. That was a big play for us."

A few series later, Barnett also helped hold the Eagles to a field goal after a long drive. On third-and-goal on the Green Bay 5, Westbrook caught a short pass in the flat and was looking to turn the corner, but Barnett beat him to the edge and pushed him out of bounds for no gain.

Then in the fourth quarter, Barnett was a key player on the defense's biggest stop of the game. The score was tied at 13, and Philadelphia had just recovered a Brett Favre fumble for a first down on the Green Bay 38, already on the edge of kicker David Akers' range.

But on first down, Barnett used the initial backfield penetration by defensive tackle Johnny Jolly to stuff Correll Buckhalter for a 4-yard loss. Then another strong push by the defensive line helped Barnett and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett stop Westbrook for a 2-yard gain on second down.

"Just like I shared with the guys, I can't say enough about the play up front, which really allows Nick to do those types of things," Sanders said.

After a holding penalty on third-and-long pushed the Eagles well out of field-goal range, the defense had preserved the tie and gotten the ball back for the offense, which is exactly what Barnett told Favre the unit was going to do as the quarterback walked off the field following the crucial turnover.

"That's the type of defense we want to be," Barnett said.

{sportsad300}It's almost imperative for Barnett to be so active for the defense to live up to that. Overall, the unit had a strong day against the Eagles, limiting a dangerous scrambler like McNabb to just nine yards rushing and less than 50 percent completions (15-of-33).

Even on Philadelphia's lone touchdown, Barnett had decent coverage on receiver Jason Avant on a crossing pattern, but McNabb's throw was perfect.

The Eagles finished with 283 yards, but Barnett felt it could have been much lower, a comment that reflected both the leadership role he has on this defense and the confidence and potential he believes it has.

"If we clean a couple of mental mistakes up, I don't think they get more than 200 yards," Barnett said. "But that comes with the first game, growing pains."

Barnett has certainly grown into a more recognizable figure on the defense with each passing season. He faces an uphill battle in that regard in the NFC North, playing the same position as Chicago Bears perennial Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said several times that the more the Packers win, the more Barnett will be noticed for what he does on the field.

Like defensive end Aaron Kampman last year and cornerback Al Harris and defensive end Cullen Jenkins this year, Barnett is proving the multi-year contract extension he received this past offseason was a good investment by the Packers.

A 2003 first-round draft pick, Barnett has averaged 10.2 tackles per game throughout his career, and has recorded double-digit tackles in 33 of 63 career games, missing only two contests. He now has double figures in tackles in four of his last six games since missing last season's game in Seattle with a broken hand.

And since that didn't exactly slow him down, there's no reason to think he will now.

"He plays extremely hard, he gets himself in good position," Sanders said. "The thing about the defense is, when your number is up, that you're in position, and he made the plays he was supposed to make, and he made them in an impactful way."

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