Anthony Barr Struggling to Make an Impact in His Third Season

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

When Anthony Barr leveled Larry Donnell on Monday Night Football in Week 4, it was a commonplace Barr moment. Minnesota Vikings fans had been seeing that type of tenacious splash play on a regular basis since Barr was taken as Mike Zimmer’s first-ever draft pick in 2014.

But as the Vikings have hit the skids this season – losing seven out of nine – Barr has regressed to the point of invisibility on defense. The most obvious statistical evidence of this are Barr’s tackle and sack numbers. The former UCLA Bruin, who amassed 55 tackles and 4.0 sacks in just 12 games as a rookie, has just 33 tackles in 14 games this season. On a per-game basis, that’s down from 4.6 to 2.4.

Barr also has just 2.0 sacks this season after recording 4.0 and 3.5 in his first two years. He has a career-low one forced fumble and does not have an interception. After being considered the top 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus last season, Barr has dipped to a ranking of 84th out of 91 OLBs, per the analytics website.

“He can do a lot better,” head coach Mike Zimmer said frankly on Monday afternoon.

This is a change of tune from about six weeks ago when Zimmer lauded Barr and explained his lack of big plays by saying teams were taking extra precautions against him. “He’s being accounted for on a lot of things,” said Zimmer. “He maybe hasn’t made the splash plays that he made a year ago, but he’s playing really well. He’s doing everything we ask him to do. Just like everything, when an opportunity presents itself, he’ll make a play.”

That was Nov. 9. Now the narrative is beginning to change. Zimmer also told the local media Wednesday morning that Barr is coasting too much and that he, linebackers coach Adam Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards had held discussions with Barr about his performance. “People are very conscientious of where’s he at in what we’re trying to do blitz-wise, so a lot of times he gets protection to him,” said Edwards Wednesday. “But we’re looking for him to play better, and I know he will play better.”

It’s possible that teams are, in fact, doing extra things to slow Barr that he may not have learned to overcome. He could be frustrated by the extra attention and letting it get to his head. It’s also possible Barr is playing banged up, as many NFL players are at this stage of the season.

If Barr is playing hurt, we don’t know to what extent. He’s been absent from the injury report since a right wrist injury cropped up in late September, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in pain. It’s worth noting that he crashed into Eric Kendricks and was visibly shaken up during the first quarter of the team’s Week 10 game at Washington, which seems to have roughly coincided with his dropoff in play. That being said, Barr coped with multiple injuries at the end of last season — including one on his left arm — that didn’t seem to drastically affect his play.

Zimmer has complimented players before for being able to play through injury, so he clearly expects certain members of the team to power through whatever ails them, and he ostensibly expects the same of Barr, who has fallen off the map the past several weeks.

Barr has just four solo tackles and no sacks in the last three games. In a series of video clips below, you’ll see a guy who is easily blocked, slow to recover and reluctant to hit.

Occasionally the mistakes are mental. In the video below, we don’t know exactly where Barr is instructed to line up, but based on the situation this looks like a concentration error. It’s 3rd and 1, and Barr is not set when the play begins and a run play goes to his side. He is easily blocked as the Colts convert on a four-yard gain.

More often than not, Barr is not getting off his blocks in time to make any sort of impact on the play. As Zimmer pointed out on Monday, this was a contagious issue with the defense against Indianapolis. “It’s taking on the block and staying in your gap, but at the end of the day, when the ball goes somewhere else, it’s getting off and getting to it. Maybe I’m over-coaching them.”

Losing against a good block is not a crime as it’s bound to happen many times in a game. If getting around a block was easy, it would be far tougher for offenses to move the football. But Barr was overpowered to the point of having just one assisted tackle to his credit against the Colts.

In the clip below, Barr is occupied for about three seconds by Jonotthan Harrison as Frank Gore rumbles past on a screen play.

Joe Haeg wins over Barr on this next play as the rookie guard pushes Barr back five yards as Gore runs straight to the linebacker’s gap. If Barr simply stalemates against Haeg, Gore probably runs into his own player and gets tackled for a very short gain.

There are also ample cases of Barr subtly avoiding contact, which helps build the case he’s playing with some sort of injury. He can frequently be found standing over a pile of tacklers, often choosing not to jump in for late support. More incriminating, though, are his open-field efforts.

This first video is more under the radar because Barr never makes contact with the runner, Alfred Morris, but he opts to take the wide angle on the upfield side of the blocker, which allows Morris to fall down, get up and run for five additional yards while Barr coasts out of the picture. It’s a conservative decision by Barr, who was opting to cut off Morris’s escape route to the sideline, but he already had help on the backside and, by the looks of it, could have taken a direct path to Morris and prevented the extra yardage.

Then there are the more obvious tackling issues where Barr fails to wrap up, or even slow, open-field runners. Many fans will recall this third down run by Dak Prescott that extended a Dallas drive in Week 13 and led to an eventual touchdown.

Below that is another ineffective tackle on T.J. Yeldon that allowed him to forge ahead for a first down in the game against Jacksonville. In either case, it’s not easy to grab hold of a sprinting runner, but Barr looks to be shooting for arm tackles in each instance. Predictably, both have bad results.

Hurt or not, it will be interesting to see if Barr’s decline affects the Vikings’ decision to extend him a fifth-year option, which seemed like a foregone conclusion one year ago. If word comes out that Barr hasn’t been playing at 100 percent, that may be the lesser of two evils in this puzzling situation.

If Barr’s regression is coming in a state of good health, that would be an even more alarming development.

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