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Year Removed From Injury, Barnett Back To His Old Self


LB Nick Barnett matched his career high with two sacks vs. Dallas last Sunday.

Nick Barnett admits to being frustrated early this season when his snaps were limited as he came back from ACL reconstruction surgery, but with the veteran linebacker performing at a high level a year after the injury, he now sees why the team took the cautious approach.

Barnett sustained the season-ending knee injury last season in Week 10 at Minnesota, and was sidelined for most of the preseason as well. He made his return in the preseason finale at Tennessee, but saw his time at Mack linebacker limited to around 35-40 snaps for the first three games of the season before going back to a full workload in Week 4 at Minnesota.

For a player that was used to being on the field nearly all of the time in his first six seasons with the Packers, being patient during those opening three games was a challenge.

"I've never been faced with an injury of that sort, an ACL," said Barnett, who had missed just two games due to injury in six-plus seasons. "This coaching staff and the trainers and the doctors have seen this injury numerous times, so they felt it was best to do that. At the time, I'm a player and I'm a guy that wants to be out on the field and helping this team, no matter what anybody else thinks.

"At the time I was very unhappy with it. Looking back, it was the smartest thing you probably could have done, to work your way back to it. I didn't do a lot in training camp, so it was smart the way we did it."

Barnett's inactivity in camp was compounded by the fact that two of the linebackers working in his place, Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop, were having strong showings in the preseason. While there was some media speculation on whether Barnett was being pushed for his starting position when he eventually returned, his belief in himself never wavered.

"You remain confident, but everybody has those things in the back of their head," Barnett said. "People always have a story to write and people ask you, 'They're doing so well. Do you think you're going to be able to come in and start?' For me, I maintained in my mind that I was going to be a starter when I came back and I was going to do the same stuff that I have done during my career.

"I just kept positive regardless of what was going on. The other guys were playing great. That's the thing; they were playing so great that people are going to ask that question, but I felt just as confident that I can do the same stuff that they are doing and add to this team as well."

Since going back to his customary number of reps starting with the game at Minnesota, Barnett has performed like he has throughout his career. After registering just 16 tackles in the first three games, he has posted 51 in the last six on his way to a team-leading 67 tackles (55 solo) on the season.

"Nick's been used to playing every down, and when you're coming off the kind of injury he's coming off of, I always think it's smarter, let's ease him back in because you don't want to take a chance of overloading him too much early and then maybe setting him back from an injury standpoint," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I think the course we've had Nick on has been a good one where you have seen him just gradually increase his play, and I think he's more comfortable now and he's moving better."

Barnett has made his presence felt in other ways as well with five passes defensed, which leads the linebackers, as well as three sacks, only a half-sack shy of his career high set in 2007.

Two of those sacks came last Sunday in Green Bay's critical 17-7 win over the Dallas. Only one other time in his career had Barnett posted two sacks in a game (Dec. 16, 2007, at St. Louis). Both came on inside blitzes, the first one in the second quarter when he came up the middle to beat center Andre Gurode to get to quarterback Tony Romo, and the second early in the second half when he bowled over running back Marion Barber to sack Romo.

{sportsad300}"He's playing very aggressively," Capers said. "I think he is playing with confidence. I think he is giving us good leadership. I like what I see out of Nick. I think he is one of our guys that are getting more and more comfortable with what we are doing.

"He likes to play aggressively. He's got quickness. You see he rushed inside, he rushed outside. He can cover. I think he can do all of those things."

Barnett earned a game ball for the performance, along with cornerback Charles Woodson on defense, and also dished one out after the game when he presented McCarthy with a game ball in the locker room in front of the whole team.

"The biggest thing that I thought was all class was Coach took all of that pressure, all of that heat last week for that loss (at Tampa Bay)," Barnett said. "It was just classy the way he did it. He didn't do it because it was his fault. He did it to take all of that attention off his players so we could get ready for a big game.

"I just thought it was a smart move and a good move that he did it, and he deserved it. It was straight from the heart and it wasn't something that was planned. That was the way I felt."

Even though Barnett is only 28, his seven seasons with the Packers tie him with cornerback Al Harris as the second-most tenured player on defense behind only linebacker Aaron Kampman, who is in his eighth season in Green Bay. As the signal-caller for the unit, Barnett inherently takes on some leadership responsibilities, but he said he is constantly striving to improve in that area that Capers alluded to.

"I never had a problem leading by my effort," Barnett said. "I'm a high-effort guy. That's just the way I was built and the way I was raised. I'm just trying to step over to the other side and vocally lead the guys as well. I handle all of the communication, so the biggest thing is being assertive with that, being loud and clear so the guys know where they've got to line up and know what they've got to do.

"They've got to be able to trust that voice that is telling them what to do, so I'm just constantly working on that. It's always a work in progress. If you ask any leader out there, and I've been reading a lot of books and it's the same underlying story. You have to work at it, the same as you work at anything else, to be a leader."

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