As much time as NFL teams invest into covering potential blind spots, you'd still have to imagine Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers weren't expecting to see Sam Barrington start alongside A.J. Hawk last Sunday at Lambeau Field.
And why would they?
Not only was it his first NFL start, the second-year inside linebacker also had been inactive the past two weeks with a hamstring issue. However, it was no gimmick. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers wanted to take a look at Barrington in an expanded role.
The 2013 seventh-round pick wound up recording two tackles in 29 defensive snaps, which trumped the 21 defensive snaps he'd played during his first 11 NFL games prior to the 38-17 victory.
In six games, the Packers have started Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Barrington all next to Hawk this season. While it remains to be seen if Barrington will get the call again this Sunday in New Orleans, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker will be ready.
"I think it'll be determined come game day," said Barrington, who has six tackles in five games this season. "Starting or not, you have to practice a certain way. That's the way I'm practicing. When it's game day, we'll find out who's up and we'll go from there."
Barrington played mostly in the 3-4 base defense and early run situations with Lattimore, who had missed practice time with a stinger, rotating next to Hawk in the nickel package until the fourth quarter. According to Pro Football Focus, only two of Lattimore's 26 snaps came against the run.
Meanwhile, Jones – the original starter who's making $3 million this season – didn't play a single defensive snap after missing two tackles a week earlier against Miami in relief of an injured Lattimore.
All three inside linebackers are in the conversation, but make no mistake. Capers believes Barrington has earned his way into the rotation.
"I think Sam played around 30 plays last week, which was a good number," defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "We need for these young guys to get more comfortable and more confident. So we thought it was a good start for him last week. You'll continue to see us work him in there to try to get him a certain number of plays during the games."
The Packers' inside linebackers will be in for a significant test with Jimmy Graham's return in the middle of the field and the presence of rookie Brandin Cooks. Roughly 56 percent of Drew Brees' passes have come across the middle this season compared to Aaron Rodgers' 45.0.
Barrington isn't making too much out of it. He'll be ready and grateful for the opportunity, especially after a hamstring injury ended his rookie season after just seven games.
"It meant a lot just because it will show you the ups and downs life will bring," Barrington said. "You just have to continue to be optimistic. … You have to do things to take up that time while you wait – continue to prepare, get better as a player, work on this time, work on that thing. If you do those things, if the opportunity comes it will be worthwhile."
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