Sam Barrington doesn’t have Jordy Nelson’s name recognition, but replacing the third-year inside linebacker could be more problematic for the Green Bay Packers than life after the Pro Bowl receiver.
The Packers placed Barrington on injured reserve Tuesday after he injured his right foot early in Sunday’s 31-23 win over the Chicago Bears. His vacated roster spot was used to activate defensive lineman Datone Jones from the reserve/suspended list.
Barrington’s departure from the defense is significant on a number of levels. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker helped improve the run defense after he stepped into the starting lineup midway through last season. He also has morphed into a respected voice and leader on a young defense.
“It's still my job, to be a leader, a teammate, a brother,” Barrington posted on his Instagram account Tuesday. “This is where I'm supposed to be. It's life. It's football. Thank you for the support guys. 2015 is our year. I'll be back to tear (stuff) up next year. That's a promise. Write that down.”
While the full extent of the injury or whether Barrington will require surgery isn’t known, it’s telling the Packers opted to shelve him for the entire season rather than using their short-term injured reserve exemption to bring Barrington back later this season.
It’s not that he’s irreplaceable – he has started only seven regular-season games – but his loss hits the Packers at arguably their thinnest position. Outside of Clay Matthews, a rookie (Jake Ryan) and a converted outside linebacker (Nate Palmer) are the only other inside linebackers on the 53-man roster.
Even when the Packers lost Nelson to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the offense had two viable starting receivers in Randall Cobb and Davante Adams to catch passes from MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If that wasn’t enough, general manager Ted Thompson re-signed veteran James Jones.
Thompson will find little help at inside linebacker on the open market. It’s one of the most difficult positions in the NFL to develop and rest assured those good enough to play already have a roster spot nearly two weeks after the cuts were finalized at the end of training camp.
In need a roster spot to activate Datone Jones, who is returning from a one-game suspension, the Packers so far have decided against promoting either Carl Bradford or James Vaughters from their practice squad. Bradford, a fourth-round pick in 2014, was among the team’s final cuts earlier this month after the team chose not to keep four inside linebackers.
The Packers had to be prepared for such a scenario. Inside linebacker is one of the most laborious positions on the football field. Look no further than the injuries Nick Barnett (wrist), Desmond Bishop (hamstring), A.J. Hawk (ankle) and Brad Jones (hamstring, ankle, quad) have dealt with in recent years.
Still, the Packers stood pat with their holdings. After releasing Hawk and Jones, their only offseason acquisition was drafting Michigan’s Jake Ryan in the fourth round. There’s plenty to like about Ryan, but no rookie inside linebacker has started since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009.
Instead, the first shot likely goes to Palmer, who was taken a round before Barrington in the 2013 NFL draft. He originally played middle linebacker at Illinois after being recruited by current special-teams coordinator Ron Zook, but switched to defensive end when he transferred to Illinois State.
Palmer spent last season on injured reserve after suffering an MCL injury he sustained at the end of the preseason. He completed the move inside this offseason and maintained a grasp on the No. 3 job behind Matthews and Barrington throughout training camp despite playing with a club on his injured left hand.
Palmer, who’s still wearing a padded splint, played well enough in place of Barrington on Sunday with six tackles in 61 defensive snaps. He has comparable speed – a 4.7-second time in the 40-yard dash – but needs to show he can match Barrington’s aggressiveness against the run.
Willingness to tackle is what won Barrington a starting spot to begin with. His ability to crash the line of scrimmage and seek contact aided the Packers in drastically improving their run defense in the second half of the season. By the end of the year, Barrington was playing on all three downs.
The Packers struggled against the run in Sunday’s win at Soldier Field, regardless of whether Barrington was on the field. The Bears and veteran running back Matt Forte attacked the defense with a barrage of stretch runs, pitches and counters, aiming for mismatches against Green Bay’s secondary.
Often, they found them. The 189 rushing yards the Packers conceded to Chicago were the second-most allowed in the NFL during Week 1. Only Minnesota (230 rushing yards) gave up more in its 20-3 loss to San Francisco.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the defense’s missed tackles were in “double-digits” when reviewing the film, but felt improvement could be found with rededication to fundamentals. After Forte rushed for 105 yards in the first half alone, Capers took solace in how his defense adjusted in the second half.
The job won’t get any easier this Sunday against Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for 267 yards and three touchdowns on 45 carries (5.9 yards per carry) in the Seahawks’ two victories over Green Bay last season. As a team, Seattle led the NFL with 172.6 rushing yards per game last season.
“I think that everybody in that locker room knows Marshawn Lynch,” Capers said. “They know what he’s capable of doing. So, yeah, we’ll be looking to make good strides this week in terms of the tackling.”
A catalyst to improving the run defense was Matthews’ switch to inside linebacker, which gave the defense a quick-twitch playmaker who quickly sealed gaps and could play to both sidelines. In the final eight games, the Packers allowed only 86.3 rushing yards per game compared to 153.6 in the first eight.
Run defense doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of one player, though. Another reason for the second-half turnaround was the defensive line, linebackers and secondary maintaining their assignments and gap integrity.
Nobody epitomized that more than Letroy Guion. A low-key signing in free agency, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman ended up starting all 16 games at nose tackle after B.J. Raji tore his right biceps muscle. After a slow start, he was one of the key components to solidifying the run defense down the stretch.
The Packers were without Guion on Sunday against Chicago because he’s serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. They also played without starting strong safety Morgan Burnett (calf), who usually drops into the box in obvious rushing situations.
Burnett’s injury isn’t expected to be long-term, but the Packers will be counting on Matthews now more than ever before. On Sunday, he had five tackles and a game-altering interception playing 54 of his 77 snaps at inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.
In the aftermath of the defense’s performance against the Bears, the Packers said they felt confident that they had the necessary players to fix their run defense. The loss of Barrington will put that theory to the test.
“I think we have the guys in the room and the building to get it done,” Palmer said Monday. “Between the coaching staff putting a proper game plan together and the defense going out there and doing their due diligence, studying, film work and things of that nature, and getting the job done.”
-email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.