Barrington has chance to 'take control' of defense
In the middle of the Green Bay Packers' defense, they were an odd couple.
Clay Matthews, a Pro Bowl pass rusher, never played inside linebacker in the NFL. But his emergence there wasn't the biggest surprise of 2014. That would be Sam Barrington, who until Week 13 last season had played very little.
Two years ago, Barrington was drafted in the seventh round. More than 230 players were taken before him. There are late-round "sleepers" every year, players who beat overwhelming odds. It's part of draft lore.
Still, the seventh round is not where teams expect to find their most reliable, pure inside linebacker, which is what Barrington became.
"I have to give him a lot of credit," linebackers coach Winston Moss said of Barrington. "He took a big step, and in taking that big step, he's given himself the opportunity to really take control of this defense as far as being a leader."
The defense's turnaround last season came at the midway point, when the Packers unveiled Matthews at inside linebacker coming out of their bye week. In that Sunday night game, Matthews had 11 tackles and a sack against the Chicago Bears.
Matthews faced a significant transition moving from outside linebacker, where he could mostly focus on rushing the passer. He had to be more multidimensional as an inside linebacker, defending both the run and the pass — and not just rushing the quarterback — for the first time in his career.
"You've got to get your feet wet," Matthews said, "and on Sunday night football I got 'em wet."
Barrington's transition was perhaps more challenging. Inside linebacker wasn't a new position, but he'd never consistently played there.
Before the Packers' showdown against the New England Patriots on Nov. 30, Barrington was on the field for only 26.3 percent of the defensive snaps through the first 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus. Including the Patriots game, he started the season's final seven games — counting playoffs — and was on the field for 78.4 percent of snaps.
There were growing pains, to be sure. But by November, Barrington established himself as a better option than now-departed veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones. In two playoff games, he played 119 of the 129 defensive snaps (92.2 percent).
Barrington and Matthews combined to solidify the interior of the defense, lifting a unit that ranked last stopping the run through the first eight games.
"Week in and week out," Barrington said, "you build things. Clay is a ball player, regardless of where he's playing. So week in and week out, with him being the ball player that he is and me just coming in and being hungry, that was kind of the fire right there. We just continued to grow through our last seven games.
"I think when you don't worry about if you started before, or if he's played there before, I think when you can just consider the personalities we both have, that's what made it work. I'm always open to communicating, I'm willing to get better. I love football, so I'm going to dive into it. Clay is a great guy, he loves football, and he's a perfectionist. We put all those qualities together, and it just worked out."
Still, inside linebacker represented the Packers' greatest positional challenge entering the draft, especially if Matthews is to return to outside linebacker. Regardless, general manager Ted Thompson waited until the fourth round to target the position, when he drafted Jake Ryan of Michigan with the 129th overall pick.
Ryan eventually could work his way into the rotation, but the Packers seem poised to start the season with Barrington and Matthews.
It's a lot of faith to place in Barrington, given what remains a small sample size for a seventh-round pick. There is no evidence Barrington can play at a consistently high level through a full season. His rookie year was cut short by a hamstring injury that put him on season-ending injured reserve after Week 9. And even with his increased role last season, Barrington was on the field for only 485 snaps. That's 39 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2014, and about 400 fewer than Hawk played.
Barrington earned the franchise's confidence, but he knows there's more work to do. Opinions of what Barrington could become are based on potential. Barrington said he isn't content merely cracking the depth chart. He wants more.
"I feel like if you sit here and you say you're satisfied," Barrington said, "I don't know how much of a player you are. This is a game of never-ending satisfaction. So I think it's all about continuing to come in and work every day. I'm not satisfied. I don't think I've done that much."
Barrington doesn't just have the trust of coaches and the personnel office. Teammates also increased their expectations. During the season, Barrington said, he helped Matthews with his transition to a new position, sharing nuances that go into playing inside.
Mike Daniels, a former fourth-round draft pick who has become the Packers' top defensive lineman, said he's impressed with Barrington's development.
"I can't make any predictions," Daniels said, "but I like what he's done so far, and I like what he's doing. I will say this about his character — Sam is a guy who very much … takes this seriously. Things don't go right, it bothers him. He's going to hold himself and his teammates accountable.
"To have a guy like that, he will get vocal on top of doing the right things — I really appreciate him. I do. I'm glad he's had his opportunity, because I knew he was going to do something once he had it."
In a 3-4 defense, the question isn't what Barrington can achieve this season. It's what he and Matthews are capable of doing together.
There were glimpses last year. Some of the Packers' best defensive games — at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay, most of the NFC championship game in Seattle — came with Barrington and Matthews sharing the field.
Barrington said he and Matthews earned more freedom in the defense as they grew more comfortable playing together. After a full offseason together, Barrington said, he expects even better results from the Packers' odd couple this fall.
"I think we both did some good things throughout the end of the season last year," Barrington said, "but we both were pretty new at what we were doing as far as game experience. So it's going to be pretty exciting to see what's going to happen this season from the both of us.
"I feel like we're continuing to build on that, so it's going to be fun once the season actually starts and we can take what we've done this offseason, and what we'll do in the next few months here, and put it on the field."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.