Derrick Barnes has been a 15-snap-a-game linebacker most of this season, even though his position coach, Kelvin Sheppard, insists he does not view Barnes as a 15-snap-a-game player.
Finally given a chance to play a bigger role Sunday, Barnes did his part to prove Sheppard right.
Barnes played what Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell called “by far” the best game of his career Sunday, making 12 tackles (including a sack) and delivering a key goal-line stop as the Lions snapped a five-game losing streak with a 15-9 win over the Packers.
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“I thought he played well last night,” Campbell said Monday. “You go back and watch the tape, it was even better than that, so he played really well and he’s continuing to improve every week and he really stepped up.”
Barnes was thrust into his most extensive action of the season — 50 snaps, or 68% of the Lions’ defensive plays — after starter Malcolm Rodriguez suffered a right arm injury in the first quarter.
Rodriguez played sparingly the rest of the game, and Barnes looked, for the first time since the Lions took him in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL draft, like he might be a key part of the team’s rebuild.
“It feels better when you have a performance like that and also win,” Barnes said after the game. “I was telling myself no matter what happens I want to win a game, because if we had that type of performance and you lose, none of that matters. And I would have told myself I could have did something better to help my team win. But we won and that’s what’s important.”
Sheppard said last month the Lions scaled back Barnes’ role in an effort to get him to stop overthinking on the field.
In just his third season as an off-ball linebacker — he started his college career as a pass rusher at Purdue — Barnes showed range and athletic ability at times as a rookie last season but was inconsistent.
Rodriguez, a rookie sixth-round pick, won the starting job next to veteran Alex Anzalone this summer, and Barnes played primarily as the Lions’ third inside linebacker in the season’s first seven games.
“I know everybody’s looking at him as a second-year guy, but he’s in his second year with different coaches in two years that’s asking him to do two different things, asking for two different styles of play,” Sheppard said last month. “So Derrick’s a very developmental linebacker in my eyes. And that’s, I’m not making excuses for things, but if you look back and look at every single rep he’s played, I think he’s played better than what’s perceived on the outside.”
One of the Lions’ most ferocious hitters, Barnes was in on several key plays Sunday.
On Green Bay’s first possession, Aaron Rodgers glanced a pass off Barnes’ helmet that Kerby Joseph intercepted in the end zone. Barnes later stuffed AJ Dillon for a short loss on third-and-goal from the 1 on the final play of the first quarter.
Rodgers threw his second interception one play later, and the Packers never led.
“They like doing that (pass) to the flat, so I thought they were trying to get me out-leveraged,” Barnes said. “But I saw them hand the ball off and I guess the guard didn’t see me, and I was like, ‘This’ll be a big stop.’ And just go make a play, man.”
Depending on Rodriguez’s injury status, the Lions (2-6) could be counting on Barnes to make more plays this week, when they host the Chicago Bears and emerging second-year quarterback Justin Fields, Barnes’ former rival in the Big Ten.
“I think he’s starting to come along a little bit,” Anzalone said. “He’s coming along at the right time and it’s his second year in the league and he’s still learning football. It’s fun to watch just cause you see a player that cares so much and has so much passion about what he does and practices the way he does, puts in the time outside the facility the way he does. For me, it’s inspiring to see and I love him, and when you see good dudes succeed, it’s awesome.”