Nick Barnett is back.
"Whoever gets in the way, I'm just going to run into him," Barnett said was his philosophy entering his first full-pads action since tearing the ACL in his right knee at Minnesota in November.
Running into people is exactly what Barnett did. With his teammates having already labored through 20 training camp practices, Barnett arrives to the party late and as if he'd just gulped down a six-pack of Mountain Dew.
He blasted through Sutton on his first blitz, then crashed full-bore into Lumpkin and Jackson later in practice. In a seven-on-seven pass drill, he converged quickly on the receiver to break up the pass. With a heavy workload — especially with fellow inside linebacker Desmond Bishop out with a sprained toe — Barnett seems on course to play Friday night at Arizona.
"I don't feel any limitations at this point," Barnett said. "I feel fast. I feel like I can push off of it, I feel like I can hit. I'm just taking it day by day and learn about it as we keep going."
Physically, Barnett says he's in football shape but not in "Nick Barnett" shape. Mentally, outside of a breakdown in zone coverage, Barnett seems on top of things, which is a tribute to the mental work he put in while sidelined through all of the offseason practices and the start of training camp.
"What's helped me the most is staying vigilant and studying," said Barnett, who spent a lot of his downtime on the practice field by mirroring the actions of his replacement, Brandon Chillar. "Usually, I kind of have a problem. If I'm not in the game or not practicing, it's hard for me to pay attention. I think I have a slight case of ADD. This year, I got past it and just focused and got my mind right and just studied and learned and stayed behind, because I knew it would come to this day where I'm out there and I need to execute, and I don't want to be a setback for the guys."
As was the case on Monday, Barnett and A.J. Hawk were the starters in the base defense, with the coaches rotating Barnett, Hawk and Brandon Chillar as the two inside linebackers in the nickel. In the dime, Barnett was the only linebacker.
Those sub packages remain a work in progress, in part because of the prolonged absences of Barnett and outside linebackers Clay Matthews III and Jeremy Thompson. Plus, the strong play of Chillar and Bishop is forcing coordinator Dom Capers to adjust some of his thinking.
"We've had some guys out that factored into our sub packages early," Capers said. "I think what that does sometimes is it forces you to develop depth. Once we get everybody back healthy, we'll go back to work on those."
With 11.5 sacks in his first six seasons, Barnett's never been much of a blitzer. In Capers' scheme, everyone is a potential blitzer. That aggressive style seems to suit Barnett. Then again, at this point, any football seems to suit Barnett.
"It's a hard defense," he said. "They don't know who they're blocking. Once they figure it out, it's too late. We're already up their throat."
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