Barnett embraces great expectations

The 27-year-old middle linebacker is in the prime of his career and is the anchor of a defense that chases greatness.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy envisions his defense being a top-three unit this season.

Forget that. Linebacker Nick Barnett has loftier goals in mind.

"We have all the potential in the world — great players and a lot of depth — I think we can be that top defense," Barnett said.

During the shareholders meeting just before the start of training camp, McCarthy talked about how this year's team would have a defense-first focus.

It was a logical proclamation given the offense is breaking in a first-year starting quarterback and the defense is loaded with players who are either nearing the end of their careers or are young and reaching the apex of their professional tenures.

"It's really a philosophy I've had since Day 1 since coming here," McCarthy said after Thursday's practice. "I think our defense has definitely improved from Year 1 until now. I think they have that ability to be a top-three defense in the league, and they have a complete understanding. We have more experience on defense than we have on offense, so I really like the makeup of our players as far as their ability that matches the scheme. I'm really excited about our defense."

Barnett and the linebackers who flank him, A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga, are the ringleaders of what needs to be an elite unit.

At 27 and entering his sixth NFL season, this is Barnett's time to take the step from very good to great. He had a Pro Bowl-caliber season last year, and he appears more focused and in tune with the defense than ever. Barnett was perhaps the best player on the field against the Bengals on Monday. He's certainly not going to shrink from McCarthy's challenge.

"It makes me think he wants to win," Barnett said of McCarthy's defense-first mantra. "If you do the history, most of the Super Bowl champions have a pretty good defense. For him to go out and say that, it means he has a lot of confidence in our defense. We're all excited that he puts that on our shoulders. We definitely want to go out there and not let him down."

Barnett has plenty of help around him, led by Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Kampman, Hawk and veteran cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson. But with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's knee putting his career in Green Bay in peril, Kampman is the unit's only elite pass rusher. That lack of a pass rush was a fatal flaw in the playoffs. Thus, the Packers need more out of a linebacker corps that is young but hardly inexperienced, and Barnett is only too happy to pick up some of the slack.

"We've got a couple tweaks in there, different things that we've been working on," Barnett said of the blitz packages the defense has flashed in camp. "We're not going to show it or release too much information, but I'm excited about the possibilities that we can do with the talent that we have at linebacker. We have so many different schemes and combinations we can put together and put the offense at a disadvantage."

That the Packers are relying on their defense should come as no surprise. After all, general manager Ted Thompson has been preparing for this day since he joined the Packers. He's focused on defense in the drafts with Hawk, safety Nick Collins, defensive tackle Justin Harrell and cornerback Pat Lee, and all of his major free-agent signings — Woodson, Ryan Pickett and Brandon Chillar — have been on the defensive side of the ball.

"If you look at most of the acquisitions and draft picks since Ted's been here, it's always been geared to trying to become that kind of defense," Barnett said. "I think we're well on our way. We have a lot of great guys, great chemistry. We're in our fourth year in the same scheme. As we continue to grow with this scheme, I think we can be a great defense."

Last year's defense was merely good — finishing sixth in the NFL in points allowed. When the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, Brett Favre was league MVP but it was the defense that set a dominating tone. With that defense, you didn't need to look at the stats to see that unit was special. It was obvious by watching, and Barnett hopes that's the case this year, too.

"I guess you can look at the games won and points given up, but even that's hard because of turnovers or whatever," Barnett said when asked about statistical measuring sticks. "But we'll know, and you'll know, if we're that top defense."

Barnett is in a unique place in which he's been on the ground floor of the building of this defense. He's gone from a rookie linebacker on a team that counted on Favre to win games to an in-his-prime tackling machine with the expectations of keeping the Packers on top in Favre's absence.

"It's been fun," Barnett said. "I've been here four playoff years, and I've been here for 4-12 and 8-8. To see where we are after 4-12 to where we are now is tremendous. It's great being a part of this program. This is a winning program. Some times you have off years, but I don't think this will be one."

Bill Huber writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com


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