When you mention the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Packers' opponent on Sunday, you think of a tradition of strong linebackers from Jack Lambert to Kevin Greene to Greg Lloyd to James Farrior and Joey Porter.
The Packers' linebacking unit may not list the same high-profile names but it has more than held their own this year, particularly last week when they played a major role in limiting the high-powered Cincinnati Bengals offense to 222 passing yards, 95 receiving yards and 21 points.
"This past weekend was probably one of their better games as a group," Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "Nick [Barnett] had 17, 18 hits. Paris Lenon did some nice things. Robert Thomas had a couple of plays there."
Having the linebackers jell so quickly is no small feat. Not only have they had to learn a new defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Jim Bates, but the group has featured an influx of new players and injuries to a six-year veteran.
"There has been a lot of in and outs with that bunch," Sherman said.
The Packers were counting on the steady presence of strongside linebacker Na'il Diggs, but he has missed all but two games with sprains in both knees. Weakside outside linebacker Robert Thomas, who joined the team via a trade with the St. Louis Rams eight days before the season began, started in Week 1. Roy Manning, an undrafted rookie free agent, has seen action at both outside linebacker positions.
But nearing the midway point of the season, the Packers have grown accustomed to the new bodies and their new responsibilities. Now they can flow to their gaps and let their athletic ability take over.
"Most of the time it's mental with us," Barnett said. "We're a pretty physically talented group of linebackers."
With the players changing around him, Barnett has served as the rock. He had 18 tackles on Sunday and has 96 on the season. He is on pace for 219 tackles, which would shatter his career high of 162 from last year.
"Racking up tackles is just a part of my job," Barnett said. "I'm happy to do that."
Barnett credits the guidance of both Bates and linebackers coach Mark Duffner for his improvement. The speedy linebacker has learned to rely on more than just his top-flight speed. Earlier in his career he would overrun plays. Now he breaks down and keeps the ballcarrier in front of him.
"I feel like I've improved drastically," Barnett said. "It's too early to start talking about a career year, but I feel I have gotten better my rookie to my sophomore season to now this year."
Barnett also likes the pass coverage schemes of the new defense, which involves much more man coverage than zone. It suits Barnett's speed, and he does not have to spend as much time trying to figure out who to cover.
"This scheme fits me pretty good," he said. "You just match up on your guy, and you go. It's an aggressive match scheme."
Bates implemented the classic 4-3 alignment he used as defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. That defense emphasized the defensive line occupying blockers and the linebackers flowing from sideline-to-sideline chasing down the ballcarrier. The Packers use the same principles.
"We feel as the linebacking group we have to set the tempo," Robert Thomas said. "We've got to make big hits because the defense feeds off of us."
Zach Thomas occupied Barnett's middle linebacker role with the Dolphins and made five consecutive Pro Bowls as the defense never ranked below 10th in the league with Bates at the helm. The Packers aspire to reach those standards.
"Zach and those guys have been playing in the system for so long," Manning said. "That's what will happen here eventually."