By the standards of most NFL teams, the Green Bay Packers had a successful 2014 season. They went undefeated at home, won their division, and were a few plays away from being the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. But the fans and the organization itself are used to this level of success, and often, anything less than a championship is seen as a wasted season. Changes have already been made with the coaching staff and personnel, and others may be coming. One major question mark is at the inside linebacker position. Longtime starter AJ Hawk seems to be on his way out, and Brad Jones is already gone. Clay Matthews’ future role is nebulous at best, and Lattimore seemed to have played his way out of a starting spot as the season went on. The only reasonably consistent player at the position is Sam Barrington.
The 2013 7th round pick out of South Florida played in 14 games last season and finished with 39 solo tackles, a sack, and a pass breakup. Towards the end of the season, he seemed to be considered the most reliable option at ILB by the coaching staff. The question is, do the Packers have a serious need at the position going into the 2015 draft?
New England, Week 13
In this play, the defense is playing Cover-6 zone, where Barrington (red box) is responsible for the hook zone to the side away from the pass strength.
Gronkowski (red route) is running a deep cross, while the receiver to Barrington’s side is running a fade and the tailback is going to the flat after play action.
Barrington is put in a bit of a dilemma. He has Gronkowski coming across the field behind him and Blount going to the sideline in front of him. However, because in Cover-6, Shields is responsible for the flat, he should maintain depth and play the hook zone (yellow).
Brady gives a slight pump fake to Blount, which is enough to get Barrington to bite and move out of the throwing lane. Once Gronkowski is out from behind Hawk, he is wide open.
…which looks like this from a different angle. Brady anticipates Gronkowski getting open, and it results in a gain of almost 30 yards.
Buffalo, Week 15
Again, the Packers are in a Cover-6 defense in the red zone, with Barrington playing the hook zone with inside position on the tight end, who is running a seam. The slot receiver, Woods, is running a drag.
Barrington drops back one or two steps to close the window on the seam route, but then passes him off to the safety, who is responsible for that deep quarter of the field. Barrington then recognizes that the QB is throwing the drag, and drives on the receiver.
He makes a perfectly timed tackle and stops him for a gain of 4 on second and eighteen.
Buffalo, Week 15
1st and 15- The Packers are in a zone defense, possibly Cover-3 or Cover-4. Barrington again has a zone responsibility in the middle of the field. The Bills are running a halfback screen with the center and the left guard releasing into the left flat.
The way the defense is drawn up, Barrington and Hyde are the only two defenders close enough to make a tackle before the tailback gets downfield. If the offensive linemen execute well enough, both defenders will be blocked and Jackson will be able to get into space.
However, Barrington shows great recognition as soon as the linemen move forward to set up the screen. He uses his speed to essentially overpursue and force Jackson to slow down and cut back inside. The best part of this play, however, is that his momentum to the outside forces both linemen to try and block him, leaving Hyde unblocked to make the tackle before the back gains too many yards.
Vs. the Run
1st and 10- Barrington is lined up to the strong side of the offensive formation and his responsibility is the outside gap. The Bills appear to be running inside zone, but the Packers line does a great job of stuffing up the middle and forcing Jackson to bounce the run to the outside.
After the handoff, Jackson sees there is nowhere to go, so tries to get around the end. This sets up a one on one tackling situation with an unblocked Barrington.
Barrington’s strength is open field tackling. He makes a solid tackle on Jackson and brings him down for a gain of 3 yards.
Dallas, Divisional Round Playoff
2nd and 3- Barrington is lined up to the strong side of the formation again, but this time the play is run away from him. His job is now to “clean up” and make sure Murray can’t cut his run back inside once he’s reached the second level.
However, almost immediately after the snap, center Travis Frederick reaches him with a perfect second-level block. Barrington either tries to push Frederick back, which is unsuccessful due to his smaller size and higher pad level, or is totally inadequate in his attempt to get off the block.
Frederick maintains his block until the whistle has blown, and had Murray broken free and cut back inside, Barrington would have been completely removed from the play.
In addition to defending the run and the pass, a starting inside linebacker must be able to call plays and audibles for the defense, as well as help other players adjust to shifts in the offensive formation. This has been Hawk’s responsibility for the past few years. However, Barrington showed some of this ability in the playoff game vs. Dallas. The tight end was lined up on the right side of the offensive line, but then motioned to the left side. Barrington recognized the shift and conveyed this to the defensive linemen, and the run was limited to a gain of three yards.
Overall, Barrington has shown flashes of play that look like that of a quality NFL starter. However, his production is inconsistent at best, especially in the pass game. He does not seem to have a natural feel for zone coverage, which is understandable due to his limited experience as a starter. Against the run, he is a better than average open field tackler when unblocked, and is decent at taking on lead blocks without giving ground. He also occasionally shows the ability to make a lead blocker miss using his hands and good footwork. However, when in sideline-to-sideline pursuit of outside run plays, he is easily blocked by offensive linemen and shows poor ability to get off blocks once engaged with the offensive player. Also, when the area between him and the ball carrier is cluttered, he has difficulty finding his way through to get in on a tackle. When his path is unclear, he is very hesitant to commit and often can be found arriving late to a pile with the ball carrier already on the ground.
In conclusion, Barrington shows some of the physical and mental ability required to be a quality starter. However, there is no guarantee he will develop into one, and if he does, it may not be by next season. Therefore, even if Clay Matthews is kept primarily at inside linebacker next season, the position is still one of major need when Draft Day rolls around.