Bills LB Barnett making immediate impact
On Monday of last week, Nick Barnett was wobbling around the Buffalo Bills' facility with his right foot in protective boot. By Sunday, the boot was off and Barnett was running all over the field.
Any lingering questions of the linebacker being over the hill or having lost a step were quickly put aside over the span of seven days after Barnett played a key role in helping Buffalo (4-1) continue its surprising start.
''Anybody can go out and have a great game when you're 100 percent,'' linebacker Shawne Merriman said, referring to Barnett's two-interception, three-tackle performance in a 31-24 win over Philadelphia. ''But when he's walking around in a boot, and able to go out and do what he did for us on Sunday is amazing, not just to me, but anybody watching.''
Barnett might have been the only one a little disappointed with a performance in which he scored on a 31-yard interception return and then picked off another Michael Vick attempt to end the Eagles' final drive and seal the victory.
''My best game? Not yet,'' Barnett said, Thursday as Buffalo prepares to travel to play the Giants (3-2) this weekend. ''The good one's coming up. I'm still working on that one.''
It's been so far, so very good for the nine-year veteran. He's the former Green Bay Packers starter who signed with Buffalo two days into training camp to lead a revamped defense.
Barnett is tied for second on the Bills with 42 tackles, has those two interceptions, a forced fumble and has broken up three passes. And he's done that without much rest, having missed only one defensive play over the past four games.
That's a significant turnaround for a hard-nosed player, who was the cornerstone of the Packers defense before injuries caught up to him. The 2003 first-round draft pick out of Oregon State played in only four games last year before hurting his right wrist. Three years ago, Barnett's season ended with a knee injury after nine games.
Despite six seasons in which he registered 100 tackles, Barnett became dispensable on a Green Bay defense intent on moving forward with A.J. Hawk.
''Everyone gets hurt. It's the NFL. So for me to come here and play well and be on a team that's playing awesome, it feels good,'' Barnett. ''Especially to be 4-1, and not looking like the guy that's `over the hill,' you know?''
After losing Paul Posluszny in free agency, the Bills identified Barnett as a potential replacement shortly after he was released by the Super Bowl champions.
Barnett had the speed and hard-hitting presence to play against the run and drop back in coverage, something Posluszny had difficulty with in the defensive scheme introduced a season earlier.
Barnett also brought with him a swagger and winning experience, something coach Chan Gailey thought was lacking in Buffalo.
''You always like to bring people in that understand about winning and what it takes,'' Gailey said. ''He's brought a little bit more of an edge to our team.''
The Bills defense is still leaking yards, having allowed 450-plus in each of its past four games. And yet it's made up for that in part by creating turnovers: Buffalo leads the NFL with 16 takeaways and 12 interceptions.
Barnett's edge, versatility and range were on display Sunday. A play before his second interception, Barnett ran across the field to limit LeSean McCoy to a 4-yard run.
Then, with the Eagles facing third-and 3 at the Bills 29, Barnett anticipated the next play perfectly.
With cornerback Drayton Florence tied up with receiver Jeremy Maclin, Barnett rushed over to his right to cover receiver Jason Avant. Florence got free from Maclin in time to strip the ball from Avant's hands, and Barnett scooped it up before it hit the ground.
''It's great to see him having the season he's having,'' linebacker Andra Davis said. ''He's helped this team so much because he's the type of guy who can do it all. ... He's one of the best that I've done played beside, without a doubt.''
Barnett has felt welcome ever since he arrived for his free-agent visit while the team was holding training camp in suburban Rochester. The night before he signed, members of the Bills front office - including CEO Russ Brandon - took him out for dinner. The following day, he watched practice alongside linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt.
''Everyone's embraced me,'' Barnett said. ''And as far as the fans and everything, there hasn't been too many people sending me hate mail.''
Well, he added, the team is winning.
''Yeah, it could be different if we were 1-4, maybe,'' Barnett added with a smile.
Thanks in part to him, the Bills aren't.