Packers coach Mike McCarthy began Monday afternoon's day-after postmortem with another dose of bad news.
"We've lost Nick Barnett for the season," McCarthy said during his midday news conference, about a half-hour after getting the news from the medical staff.
With that, the Packers will enter their do-or-die stretch run — which begins Sunday afternoon with what amounts to a must-win game against the first-place Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field — without the player who has been a fixture at middle linebacker since being a first-round draft pick in 2003.
Barnett, who had missed only two games in his career, tore the ACL in his right knee on the first series of the third quarter of Sunday's devastating 28-27 loss at Minnesota. His knee buckled when he tried to stop a cutting Adrian Peterson.
McCarthy was not sure whether backup Desmond Bishop would be promoted to the starting lineup. Another option is moving weak-side linebacker A.J. Hawk into the middle, with Brandon Chillar taking over on the weak side.
"We do have options, but I'm not talking through you," linebackers coach Winston Moss said.
McCarthy said a decision would be made on Tuesday, when coaches work out the game plan for the Bears.
"By the time we're ready to roll on Wednesday, we'll have our guys all set at their positions and get them ready for Chicago," Moss said.
One possibility is promoting Bishop, who has two strong preseasons under his belt but never has started in the NFL. Bishop, a sixth-round pick in 2007, recorded six tackles on defense (and three on special teams), and made a huge play by stuffing Peterson and stripping the ball on a fourth-and-1 run in the fourth quarter.
However, Bishop was victimized on his first play in place of Barnett, when he was late getting out into the flat on a pass to Chester Taylor. Taylor juked past Bishop and ran down the left sideline for a 47-yard touchdown. And on Peterson's winning touchdown run, Bishop wasn't in position to make a play.
"That first play was rough, the last play was rough, in between, a lot of good stuff," Moss said. "I thought he was very good to get minimal work (in practice) and still have some production and to still be close to where he was supposed to be. I'm very confident that, if he had to play this week, if you gave him a week of preparation, that he'd be ready to go."
Bishop, one of the few players in the locker room on Monday, took the blame for both plays. On the pass to Taylor, he said he should have kept inside leverage and used the sideline as an extra defender. On Peterson's run, he recalled Peterson had cut back on a similar run, so he maintained an inside position. When Peterson stayed outside, it was an easy touchdown.
Bishop wouldn't use a lack of practice time — he doesn't get any reps in practice — as an excuse. "That's the job," he said.
And while Bishop earned a roster spot by beating out Abdul Hodge during the preseason, he knows it's a whole other ballgame now. For two years, Bishop's preseason has been his regular season. Now, he's not playing for his job but he's charged with not allowing a horrid run defense to get any worse and help keep the team in the playoff race.
"It's a totally different level now," he said.
The other possibility would allow the Packers to get their best three linebackers on the field in Hawk, Chillar and Brady Poppinga but would come at the price of having to move Hawk, who outside of a few snaps, hasn't played anywhere but on the weak side since high school.
"There's a lot of different ways to try to get this done, but we're going to take what we feel is going to give us the best chance to win, regardless of it's moving a couple guys around," Moss said. "It ain't going to be about pleasing somebody or making the least amount of moves. We're going to take whatever it takes to get in the best possible position to win."
Just as likely, Hawk and Bishop will get their chance in the middle, with Hawk flanked by Poppinga and Chillar on likely running downs and Bishop flanked by Hawk and Chillar on passing downs. On nickel downs, Hawk likely will be paired with Chillar. Or, the Packers could use more dime defenses, and with safety Aaron Rouse replacing Hawk.
"They're all good linebackers," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "That was one of the positions heading into training camp that had a lot of depth. We're going to get a chance to see it now."
However they do it, Barnett will be difficult to replace.
Barnett played at a Pro Bowl level last season with 165 tackles and a career-high 3.5 sacks, but he seemed to take a step back when he didn't get awarded a trip to Honolulu. He's been average at best and invisible at worst, with 68 tackles and few memorable plays in nine games this season.
Still, Barnett is the emotional and physical leader of the defense. He will need surgery, and a six- to eight-month recovery should make him available — at least on a limited basis — when training camp convenes.
"Obviously, experience, talent, a guy that's called our defense the last six years, so it's a tremendous loss for us," Kampman said.
"You lose a very productive, impactful player," Moss said. "You get a guy that has an extremely high motor and can make plays outside of the scheme, so it's going to be a tough loss. But in this league, guys have to step up."
Barnett has not been placed on injured reserve. Once that happens, the Packers will add somebody to the roster, though not necessarily a linebacker.
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Barnett's Knee Injury Puts Hole in Middle
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