Barnett has become a more complete player this season, something he was not in his first two seasons. Previously, his play-making ability overshadowed his costly mistakes, many which were exploited by the opposition for long gains or touchdowns. Just as much as he helped the team, he hurt it, too.
This year, though, Barnett is limiting his mistakes, and he appears to better understand what it takes to be a football player, not just an athlete playing football. He is holding his position when he needs to and is attacking when the opportunity presents itself. He has become consistent and dependable. As a result, the Packers' defense is much better, rated 9th in the NFL through Week 5.
So what is the big difference in Barnett? Sure, experience has helped, but the defensive system has taken him to a new level. The middle linebacker position is the focal point of Bates' scheme and if played well, it will produce a standout player. Zach Thomas of the Dolphins has proved that over the past five years. He defined how a middle linebacker should man Bates' defense and Barnett, in a similar mold, is following his example with the Packers.
Barnett is fourth in the league in total tackles with 50 according to league statistics, just behind Thomas (56), the Chargers' Donnie Edwards (57), and the Jets' Jonathon Vilma (62). Packers' defensive coaches, who review game film each week and adjust tackle totals, have Barnett credited with 69 total tackles. Monster games against the Buccaneers (18 tackles) and the Panthers (21 tackles, a career-high) have helped him compile such a massive total.
The Packers have not had a linebacker go through such a productive stretch amassing tackles in a season since Mike Douglass in 1981. Douglass set the team record for total tackles that year with 180. Should Barnett continue his torrid pace, he would shatter that mark with 221 tackles (according to team statistics).
Barnett also had the highlight play of the year for the Packers when he ran back an interception 95 yards for a touchdown against the Saints last Sunday. Even more impressive than the runback was that Barnett made up for a communication breakdown on the play, when the Packers' defense "did not match up correctly underneath," according to head coach Mike Sherman. Barnett made up for the mix-up by "staying at home." He read quarterback Aaron Brooks and had a notion of where the ball was coming.
"They run that route when they get down there by the end zone," explained Barnett shortly after the game. "We practiced and coaches prepared us real well for that. I kind of just went over there, sat in the zone, and he threw it right to me."
Maybe the truest indicator of the improvement in the Packers' defense and Barnett is that they have given up only 3.3 yards per carry this season. As that number stands alone, it is impressive enough, but considering the Packers have been behind in games for most of the season, the improvement is even more astounding.
Only five teams in the NFL have been run against more than the Packers (30.8 rushing attempts against per game) and of those five teams, the Packers have the stingiest yard-per-carry average. At the core of that performance has been Barnett. Where he was susceptible to giving up big plays in the past by overrunning cutback lanes – and thus inflating the team's yard-per-carry average - he has showed more patience this year. The result has been a lack of big plays in the running game by the opposition. The Packers' defense has allowed only two runs of 20-plus yards.
Clearly, Barnett has found a defense that suits him perfectly, and he is taking advantage of it. He has gone from a good player on a bad defense to a great player on a good defense just when the Packers needed him to raise his level of play. That makes him a simple choice, early in the season, as the team's best player.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.