Marion Barber has made a career out of a great first gear and the pop of a fullback. Barber excels at powering through the first tackler, resuming his run or at least falling forward. The length of a body can be enough to make a failed rush successful, a stuffed run a first down or a goal-line stop into a touchdown.
Barber discovered himself in 2006. He was the lesser used but greater half of a committee led by Julius Jones. Barber was the closer. In only 135 runs, Barber amassed the league's sixth most DYAR. He ranked first in value per rush and second in success.
Dallas attempted to turn that concentrated value into a feature back and Barber struggled in 2008. This season, Dallas is back to spreading touches and Barber is back to powering through tackles and punishing defenders. This time, Barber is the leader and his teammates Tashard Choice and Felix Jones the backs getting the money yards.
Barber averages a little over 14 rushes a game. His quickness allows him to turn the corner and before the quad injury that kept him out of week three, he had almost an even split of runs to the inside and the outside. Returning in week four, he began gunning at the middle again and his overall split represents an inside rusher: 47 rushes to the middle and 25 to the outside.
When healthy, he can be equally productive inside and outside. Inside, he exploits the short path to build momentum and attack linebackers in the hole. Outside, Barber makes defensive backs fullback for a snap, driving into and through them and using the tackle attempt to pick off tacklers and break free. He attempts to break the tackle or to break the tackle enough to fall forward. Barber is a contact rusher whose productivity hinges on yards after contact.
The key to beating him is winning the tackle enough at the point to turn his lust for contact into stuffs in the hole. Most teams lack the linebackers to do that, but Seattle doesn't. Seattle must not only stand Barber up and counter his momentum, but swarm to Barber and not allow him to spin off and gain yards after contact.
That presents a major challenge for David Hawthorne. Heater has proven he can cover the field, make tackles outside the hash marks and join in gang tackles. He hasn't proven that he can win the one-on-one matchup and power the back into the hole. Hawthorne must for Seattle's rush defense to stop or slow football's number one rated rushing attack.
If Hawthorne can withstand the initial pop, his linemen and fellow linebackers can swarm, strip or at least force Barber back. The faster he hits Barber in the hole, the better able his linemen will be to collapse around Barber and stop him where he stands. It's not about tackles in this case, it's about tackle assists, and winning first contact, and keeping Barber in the blocks, and preventing the squat power back from bruising, spinning and continuing his march towards the end zone. Hawthorne, Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill and Deon Grant will each get their turn, but Hawthorne owns the middle, and through him Dallas will win, or opposite him, Marion Barber will fall.