Since then, Hawk had started all 80 games in which he had played. That ended on Sunday, when Hawk was perched on the sideline to start the game against New England. In his place was Sam Barrington, who recorded five tackles — including jarring stops of Shane Vereen and LaGarrette Blount on back-to-back plays to force the Patriots to punt on the opening series.
“I think Sam, he’s starting to hit his stride,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday, a day after a 26-21 win over the Patriots. “I think at some point for all your young players, the game tends to slow down a little bit and you’re able to go out there and play and not think. And I think that’s definitely where Sam is.”
Barrington, who played 47 of 56 snaps, played so well that he might provide some stability in the middle entering the stretch run.
It wasn’t just the starting lineup that was in a constant state of flux. The Packers had a revolving door as the lone inside linebacker in the dime package. Jones played every snap in Week 1. Hawk played all but one snap the next six weeks. Lattimore didn’t start but played the dime linebacker at New Orleans in Week 8. The gig went back to Hawk for the next two games before Jones was taken out of mothballs to be the dime linebacker last week at Minnesota.
So, Hawk has gone from every-down player to demoted from the dime to demoted from the nickel in the span of a couple weeks. Against the Patriots, Barrington and Hawk were the tandem in the base 3-4 defense, with Matthews going back home to outside linebacker. In nickel, Barrington and Matthews were the inside linebackers, with Hawk to the bench. And in dime, Matthews was the lone inside linebacker.
“Basically, personnel groups,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said in explaining his thinking on Monday. “They’re a big matchup team. You saw the back move in and out of the backfield. You saw (tight end Rob) Gronkowski line up at normal wide receiver locations. They know your personnel. They know how you’re going to match up. We played more of our base 3-4 yesterday, and I thought it played well for us against their running game any time they had those two big backs in there or they put an extra lineman in at the tight end position. If you’d watch their Colts game, they were running that ball, and we wanted to make sure we had an answer for that (with Hawk in the 3-4). When we went to our sub personnel groups, we just wanted to try to determine the matchups.”
What Barrington — a seventh-round pick in 2013 — lacks in experience, he makes up for in power. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, that was evident when he overpowered Blount on third-and-2 on the opening series. Hawk, who seemingly slims down every offseason in an effort to compete athletically, has been ineffective against the run and pass this season. He's listed as 235 pounds but that can't possibly be accurate because of his inability to battle power with power.
Of the 57 inside/middle linebackers who have played 25 percent of the defensive snaps this season, Hawk ranks last in the NFL in ProFootballFocus.com’s run-stop percentage metric, which measures impact tackles in the run game (such as a first-and-10 tackle that holds the play to 3 yards or less). Barrington had three on Sunday; Hawk hadn't had that many since Week 5 vs. Minnesota. Against the pass, Hawk’s lack of range was never more evident than it was in the opening series against Minnesota last week, when tight end Kyle Rudolph was wide open for 23 yards while it appeared Hawk was chasing with cement in his shoes.
Barrington allowed one short reception on Sunday, against Julian Edelman, but promptly made the tackle. Frequently, he was lined up near the sideline against Vereen, but the Patriots didn’t probe that matchup, which is a sign that Barrington held up well against a top pass-catching back.
“I would say (the rotation) would vary from week to week,” Capers said. “You saw him play every snap of our Okie (base) defense yesterday. Based off what our opponent is doing, you’ll see different personnel groups and different people involved in those and it could change from one week to the next based on your injury situation, who’s available. The purpose is to try to get your best 11 people against who they put out there and the matchups.”
firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.