Inside linebackers' impactful play opening up Packers' options

De’Vondre Campbell, Krys Barnes leading defense’s strong charge

Packers linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes

GREEN BAY – There were just five yards separating Darrel Williams and the Packers' end zone when Krys Barnes came charging into the flat this past Sunday in Kansas City.

After a pre-snap assignment switch with fellow inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, Barnes knew it was up to him to prevent the Chiefs running back from scoring after Williams caught a third-and-goal pass underneath and turned upfield.

Barnes quickly diagnosed the play and delivered a powerful shoulder tackle that torpedoed Williams out of bounds a yard shy of goal line. Campbell, trailing close behind, began wagging his index finger to signal Barnes' rejection, which saved four points as Kansas City settled for a Harrison Butker field goal.

"It's crazy because you rarely see plays like that anymore," said safety Darnell Savage, who watched the play develop while covering Kansas City receiver Demarcus Robinson over the middle. "Most of the time when a guy gets that close, normally they score."

Barnes' play is just one example in a season of impact plays from Green Bay's inside linebackers, who collectively have been a catalyst in the defense's best start in a decade.

Campbell has received a lot of attention for what he's added since signing with the Packers in June, and deservedly so. The sixth-year veteran recently was honored as the NFC Defensive Player of Month after notching 45 tackles (three for loss), two forced fumbles, an interception and a sack in October.

However, Barnes has taken a major step in Year 2, too. The former undrafted free agent had a team-high nine tackles (one for loss) on Sunday, a performance the entire coaching staff agreed was Barnes' best game in a Packers' uniform.

"Most of the season I think I've been in my head a little bit too much as far as thinking about so many things, whatever it might be, kind of overthinking stuff," said Barnes, who has 36 tackles and a sack in eight games with six starts.

"One thing I usually do before a game is I pray, but this week I prayed about just God giving me peace and letting me go out there and play, show what he's blessed me to do, and I think that's what displayed on Sunday."

Barnes came out of nowhere a year ago to not only make Green Bay's roster but also emerge as the team's every down "Mike" linebacker responsible for relaying the defensive calls.

While Campbell has assumed those duties this year, first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry brought a flexible scheme with him to Green Bay with room for multiple inside linebackers.

For example, Packers inside linebackers are averaging 106.3 defensive snaps per game this season, which puts them on pace for their most playing time since Clay Matthews' final season inside in 2015.

According to NFL NexGen stats, the Packers are playing 55% of their total snaps in nickel (with five defensive backs), more than double their 26.9% last season. Conversely, they've played dime (six DBs) 22.8% this year, down from around 50% in 2020.

Campbell's plus coverage ability has played a role in that, but Barnes also has earned playing time. He's been on the field with Campbell on 80 of the defense's 124 snaps (64.5%) over the past two weeks.

"They're playing great ball," said safety Adrian Amos of Campbell and Barnes. "Game by game we're getting better and better (as a defense), and I think those two in the middle are a big part of that, just how they can move and how they are receptive and how well they communicate."

Barry has found ways to work Oren Burks into the mix, as well. The fourth-year veteran already has established a new career high for playing time (127 defensive snaps), while assisting Campbell in pass nickel situations.

Campbell currently leads the Packers' defense with 559 snaps played and 83 tackles. Even if it were still a 16-game regular season, the 28-year-old linebacker would be on pace for career highs across the board.

When asked recently about why he's been such a good fit in Green Bay's fifth-ranked defense, Campbell kept it simple – the scheme allows linebackers to be linebackers. 

"I've played in systems where linebackers are almost like defensive backs," Campbell said two weeks ago. "You're running with wide receivers all the time, you're playing in man coverage. That's something I can do – I'm very good at it – but this system just allows linebackers to be linebackers and defensive backs to be defensive backs. That's basically the biggest difference. It allows a linebacker to be a linebacker and make plays within the box area."

There are times when Campbell is on his own, whether it's in the "Penny" or dime, but the level to which Green Bay's inside linebackers have performed this season has given Barry an abundance of different options to play with down the stretch.

"The more those guys play together I think the more comfortable they are with one another," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur of Campbell and Barnes. "Each game plan's different in terms of whether you want to bring in a DB to play the inside 'backer position.

"But the box feels a little heavier when you have a bigger body in there. Maybe a little bit more stout and tougher to run against. But certainly situationally, there's going to be a time when we want a dime in the game."

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