LB's strip changes tone of game

LB Eric Barton made a number of tackles and big plays, including a forced fumble, in the Jets' win.

Originally Published: December 19, 2004
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jets middle linebacker Sam Cowart was asked to explain what exactly the "JACK" linebacker was in coordinator Donnie Henderson's scheme. His answer, minus the technical mumbo jumbo: The "JACK," played so masterfully by first-year Jet Eric Barton, basically would be the equivalent to Ray Lewis' weak-side inside linebacker position in a more traditional 3-4 scheme such as Baltimore's.

Lewis? How apropos. Barton's performance in Sunday's 37-14 New York win over the Seahawks at the Meadowlands was, simply, Lewis-like.

If they score there, it becomes a tight football game again. That's big. Very, very big for us on defense to stop them there. That was, really, the turning point in the game for us.
Jets coach Herm Edwards on Shaun Alexander's fumble

Call Barton a jack of all trades. His stat line: 11 total tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a recovery, an interception, and two pass deflections. He made the play of the game in the third quarter, jarring the ball lose from Shaun Alexander just as the Seattle running back was about to push across the goal line and pull the Seahawks to within nine, possibly, eight points. The "Monday Night Countdown" crew would say Alexander got "jacked up."

In a meeting between playoff hopefuls that by the third quarter had turned into a laugher, Barton was no joke. The lowly Raiders must be crying for letting him get away in the offseason. Between Barton and Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman, it's been quite a year for Oakland defensive free agent exports.

Barton and Coleman are friends and keep in touch. They'll have lots to talk about in the coming weeks, what with the Jets all but having assured themselves of joining Atlanta in the postseason with their 10th win.

"(Coleman) scored a touchdown a couple of days ago, so he was in my ear about that," Barton said of Coleman's interception return against the Raiders last Sunday. "And he got to do it against his old team."

"We came in together, both fifth-round picks for that team. For some reason, they decided to go another way and we decided to go another way."

The game here may have gone differently had it not been for Barton's strip of Alexander. The Seahawks were trailing, 30-14, and facing fourth and goal at the 1-yard line. Matt Hasselbeck tossed to Alexander, who took it around the right side, and when he turned up field, it looked for an instant that the running back was sure to get in -- and keep Seattle in the game. But Barton and rookie middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma met him at the one-inch line, and Barton separated him from the football. Shaun Ellis recovered in the end zone.

Seattle never recovered.

The Seahawks fell to 1-10 all-time in the Meadowlands. It's their house of horrors. In the second quarter, Curtis Martin scored from three yards to make it 17-7, Jets. But the ball did not appear to break the plane of the goal line. Referee Scott Green saw it differently and awarded the Jets six points anyway. It was shades of Vinny Testaverde's phantom touchdown run six years ago that kept the Seahawks out of the 1998 playoffs and ultimately got then-coach Dennis Erickson kicked out of Seattle.

Mike Holmgren's team had two plays at the same goal line go against them. Barton's was the bigger of the two. Seattle, a team that often struggles with adversity, couldn't overcome such a setback. The turnover contributed to the Jets' seventh second-half shutout of the year -- more than twice as many as anyone else has.

"If they score there, it becomes a tight football game again," Jets coach Herm Edwards said. "That's big. Very, very big for us on defense to stop them there. That was, really, the turning point in the game for us."

"We said, 'No matter what happens, we can't let this team score a touchdown,' " said Barton, who ended a Seattle second-quarter possession with his first interception of the year. It led to Chad Pennington's second of three touchdown passes in the game and first of two to Santana Moss. "Our defense," Barton continued, "when we come together, it's hard to do anything on us. We have great players and great coaches. It's just an example of what can happen when we all stick together and fight for each other."

The Jets have gone from 6-10 a year ago to 10 wins so far, with the rival (and division-leading) Patriots coming to town next week. New York's improved defense has much to do with the turnaround. Barton, in his sixth season out of the University of Maryland, leads the charge with 111 stops.

"He's playing well within the scheme," Cowart said. "And when he has an opportunity to make plays, he's making them. Then, in this defense, you've got to have a little bit of grit. You've got to be nasty. He brings that to the table."

Barton credited Henderson, brought in from Baltimore in the offseason, for setting the table, so to speak.

"He's done a great job of putting me and other players in position where he never lets them expose your weaknesses," Barton said. "He always has guys in position to do the things they do best. It's working. We've got guys making plays all over the place."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

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