During his super first two seasons with the Vikings, it seemed as though outside linebacker Anthony Barr always was powering into the backfield like a locomotive and was capable of leaping over tall linemen in a single bound.
From his game-changing sacks to a game-winning fumble return for a touchdown as a rookie, it was impossible not to notice Barr as he established himself as one of the best young linebackers in the NFL.
This season, though, the 24-year-old has mostly looked like a mere mortal as others on the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense have been more impactful.
“On this defense, we’ve got a lot of good players, and our main focus is that you don’t have to be a superhero. Just go out and do your job,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “[Barr has] been playing real well in my [opinion].”
The Vikings defense, while still arguably the league’s best, has shown cracks the past two weeks. The big plays it regularly produced early in the season have become sparse, with only two total sacks and one interception in back-to-back losses against the division rival Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions.
Barr’s emerging from a phone booth could be just what the Vikings need to get their defense back on track and end their worrisome three-game losing streak by beating the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on Sunday.
In 2015, Barr recorded 3 ½ sacks, picked off a pass and forced three fumbles. Those highlight-reel plays helped him make the Pro Bowl as an alternate. This season, his third, he has just one sack and has yet to create a takeaway, though he did pounce on a fumble in a Week 6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Barr admits there is a temptation to ditch his assignment when he senses he can maybe make a big play. But for the most part, he has resisted the urge.
“The moment I press and try to do too much is when I hurt my team. I’m not frustrated,” Barr said. “I still have so much confidence in this defense and in myself. [Big plays] just haven’t been there for whatever reason. But if you really watch the tape, you see more often than not I’m in the right place.”
Pro Football Focus, the analytics website that evaluates every player on every single snap, graded Barr as the second-best off-the-ball linebacker in the league in 2015, trailing only Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Halfway through this season, Barr is PFF’s 73rd-ranked linebacker overall, with poor marks in both coverage and run defense. And while it has again graded him as one of the best pass rushers among his peers, Barr has generated pressure on only 16.7 percent of his rushes, down from 29.3 in 2015.
“I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff. My big thing is as long as my coaches are telling me that I’m doing a good job and I’m in the right place, that’s my focus,” said Barr, who ranks sixth among Vikings with 32 tackles. “I think last week was the first time I was told that I needed to play better.”
On a big third-down run by Lions back Theo Riddick in the first quarter, Barr, who had lined up in the A gap, was quickly walled off by Lions center Travis Swanson. Riddick burst through that hole and gained 42 yards before being tackled.
Barr also whiffed on a pair of tackles in the 22-16 overtime loss, giving him seven missed tackles in eight games, one shy of his total for the entire 2015 season.
But Barr said that before his substandard performance last Sunday, Vikings coaches had been giving him a negative grade on only two or three plays per game.
While acknowledging that Barr “maybe hasn’t made the splash plays that he made a year ago,” coach Mike Zimmer said he feels Barr still is playing at a high level.
“He’s doing everything we ask him to do,” Zimmer said. “Just like everything, when an opportunity presents itself, he’ll make a play. Anthony Barr is a good player. We’ll continue to try to use him as best we can.”
Zimmer added that Barr is “being accounted for” by opponents more regularly. Barr also has noticed protection shifting toward him when he shows blitz.
And despite playing this fall with injuries to his wrist, ankle, groin and now his ankle again, Barr does not feel as if those “nicks” have affected his play.
With his defensive teammates playing so well around him in the first half of the season, Barr doesn’t seem overly concerned about his modest stat line. He feels that if he keeps doing his job and doesn’t try to be Superman, he will soon resume making the impact plays that got him so much buzz.
“When the opportunity presents itself, I will be ready to capitalize,” he said.