The Minnesota Vikings have a bad defense. For a Mike Zimmer coached team, that’s jarring. We’re used to suffocating defenses that win games 20-10 and have opposing offenses searching for their identities afterwards. But in the last four games, Minnesota has given up two-score leads twice (nearly three times) and been blown out by the Falcons. A huge part of this decline is the absence of a staple player in both pass and run defense, Anthony Barr.
Barr’s role is a fairly unorthodox one. He’s not your run-of-the-mill off-ball linebacker like San Francisco’s Fred Warner, nor is he a 3-4 “linebacker” like Houston’s J.J. Watt. He occupies a custom role designed specifically for him by Zimmer. When he blitzes (which is almost twice as often as your average off-ball linebacker), the way Zimmer uses him unlocks a lot of the other production we see out of the Vikings.
Most teams don’t treat Barr like a regular linebacker. After years of beating up running backs and tight ends, most teams will commit to using offensive linemen to block his blitzes, essentially treating him like a fifth defensive lineman. Every once in a blue moon, some poor sap underestimates Barr and pays the price. Here’s a quick explanation of that happening to Adam Gase in 2018:[videopress xFzeodYV]
Gase made it easier than it usually is. Usually, Zimmer has to design his blitzes based on the knowledge that Barr will occupy an offensive lineman. If Barr is occupying a lineman, Zimmer can run a second blitzer right past the area that lineman vacated. Here, Barr and Griffen draw three linemen, and Harrison Smith gets an unblocked sack:[videopress 5Ue29AZ3]
Most teams will use protection slides to respond to threatening blitzers. Responsibilities will shift down the line to account for the new threat. When Zimmer can rely on Barr causing the quarterback or center to slide the protection, he can take advantage of the new setup. Sometimes, Barr doesn’t need to rush at all to cause this adjustment. In this case from 2016, the Vikings run a “sim” (short for simulated) pressure. Barr is just spying Aaron Rodgers this time, but often backs into standard coverage responsibilities. In this case, Danielle Hunter ends up one-on-one with Marcedes Lewis:[videopress kS0EsF6V]
These plays won’t necessarily lead to better PFF grades. The play above, for example, probably grades out at a neutral 0.0 for Barr, since nothing he did on the play was particularly special. His presence comes with an effect Zimmer maximizes, but PFF wouldn’t grade Barr highly just for existing. This isn’t an indictment of PFF, but an explanation of why Zimmer sells Barr as something PFF doesn’t capture. Their methodology is simply measuring a different facet of linebacker play.
Now, without Barr, the defense is feeling the effects. A lot of Zimmer’s favorite blitz concepts don’t work without a pass-rushing threat like Barr. Eric Wilson doesn’t make running backs shake in their boots. So to generate pressure, Zimmer has to pay the same toll that everybody else does. In this example, he has to send Jeff Gladney, which vacates a spot in coverage the Titans take advantage of:[videopress 22AjluPL]
Barr allowed Zimmer to sneak into the blitz movies without paying for a ticket. Now that Zimmer has to pay the normal cost, he can’t blitz as much without putting added strain on a struggling young cornerback group. Hopefully, the return of Barr in 2021 can mean the return of Zimmer’s pass rush packages, and in turn, easier responsibilities for this young secondary.