It took Derek Barnett 355 minutes into his NFL career to finally record a sack, and the joy of the Eagles’ first-round pick was apparent. The sack came at a crucial time late in Thursday’s 28-23 win over the Carolina Panthers.
Barnett rushed deep into the pocket, pushed through the left tackle, and dived at a slipping Cam Newton’s feet to knock one of the NFL’s strongest quarterbacks to the turf. Defensive tackle Justin Hamilton jumped on Newton to finish the play – both were rewarded with a half-sack — and the Panthers were left with a deep third down.
Barnett didn’t celebrate with a planned sack dance. He hugged Chris Long, the veteran end who told him while he was sackless to keep playing as he was and he would be rewarded.
“They’re hard to come by,” Barnett said by his locker after the game. “You don’t get many chances. So it always feels good to get to the quarterback. That’s any level.”
At his previous level, though, the sacks were plentiful. Barnett’s production was prolific at Tennessee, with 33 sacks in three years. You might have heard that he broke Reggie White’s sack records.
Former defensive coordinator Bill Davis used to say that sacks came in bunches, and that’s what Barnett is relying on. It took awhile to get one, but it might not take as long for the second.
“I do believe in that,” Barnett said earlier this season. “A lot of defensive linemen believe in that. When you get one, they start coming in. It’s very hard to get those.”
In the preseason, it didn’t look as if it would take so long. He had two sacks in the opener and another sack in the second game. But Barnett quickly realized that the regular season is different. The tackles block better and the quarterbacks pass more quickly.
“Everybody I go against is going to be really good,” Barnett said. “As a pass rusher, you can’t get down.”
The coaching staff emphasized diversifying his rushes. He couldn’t rely on the same move all the time. He worked during training camp to develop counter moves, and he’s been working to integrate them into games. It’s no longer just using his bend around the edge. He must win with power, too.
He also learned not to get discouraged. When the Eagles played the Giants, Eli Manning threw the ball so quickly that the pass rushers often didn’t have time to apply pressure. But once a pass rusher thinks there’s no chance to make a play, he could miss an opportunity.
“You might get 20 rushes a game,” Barnett said. “That one when you’re, like, ‘He’s going to get the ball out quick, I’m just going to ease up,’ that’s the one you’re going to miss. So just be consistent and keep on going. Eventually you’re going to break it.”
Practices have helped. When Barnett was asked about a player or moment that showed him he’s in the NFL, he referenced trying to rush against Jason Peters every day. The Eagles have mostly kept Barnett on the right side, where he faces left tackles. Peters might land in the Hall of Fame one day, and has taken an interest in helping Barnett improve.
Barnett also noted that production is not only about sacks. Moving a quarterback off his spot is an achievement. Forcing him to throw the ball matters. If Barnett’s rush aids in the sack of another pass rusher, then the net result is the same – even if the statistic is not credited to him. He was credited with two quarterbacks hits on Thursday, which shows that he’s getting pressure.
Barnett’s fourth quarter on Thursday included more than a sack. He was also flagged with a costly personal foul when he hit Newton after the Panthers were charged with delay of game. Barnett disagreed with the call; he said he didn’t hear the whistle and tried pulling up before hitting Newton.
The Eagles still won the game, so chalk it up as another learning experience in a first six weeks that have included many. The Eagles are bullish about Barnett, and that was the case even when his name didn’t appear in the sack column. Long told him during that period that if he keeps working and sticks to what the coaches are asking, then the results will show by the end of the year. Thursday’s sack might be the start.
“That’s my mindset,” Barnett said. “Keep on going, keep on doing things they want me to do, and by the end of the season, things will be in a good place.”