The two biggest plays of Sunday’s game were made in the red zone by backup defenders who were only on the field because of injuries to players ahead of them.
On consecutive snaps late in the first half of a 7-7 game, Stephen Weatherly’s tackle for loss at the 20-yard line was followed by Anthony Harris’ forced fumble and recovery at the 1.
“Stephen’s stop was great, and Anthony’s was the play of the game,” linebacker Anthony Barr said after the Vikings slammed the Rams 24-7 at U.S. Bank Stadium. “It changed the whole game. It could have been 14-7 at the half. And then our offense came out and went three-and-out to start the second half. It would have been a different game at that point.”
The Vikings were reeling before Weatherly and Harris made their plays.
In a span of three snaps, Kai Forbath missed a 48-yard field goal and Barr was flagged for roughing the passer when he lowered his helmet and struck Jared Goff in the chest after he threw an incompletion.
In a blink, the Rams were in Vikings territory. And Barr was none too happy.
“The ref said I hit him with my helmet, but, I mean, I honestly don’t know what else I’m supposed to do,” Barr said. “I tried to move so I didn’t hit him in the head, and they still called it. Whatever, man.”
Never fear. In what has become a charmed season, when the steady kicker and the Pro Bowl linebacker hurt the team, guys named Weatherly and Harris are there to bail them out.
“My feeling is be ready, do your job and good things will happen,” said Weatherly, who got extra reps at the end when Brian Robison sat because of a back injury.
The Rams had gone 51 yards in nine plays after Forbath’s miss. They had first-and-10 at the Vikings 17 when Todd Gurley took a handoff over right tackle.
Everson Griffen, playing left end on that play, penetrated and sealed the edge, forcing Gurley to cut back. Linebacker Eric Kendricks came up quickly, forcing Gurley into Weatherly’s grasp for a 3-yard loss.
“My job was to stay on the backside and take that option away from him,” Weatherly said. “Lo and behold, Griff sets the edge high, EK comes inside out, and all I had to do was stay there and wait. Gurley came right to me.”
Yeah, but that’s no ordinary back. Gurley came into the game leading the league with seven rushing touchdowns.
“Everybody did their job there,” Kendricks said.
One snap later, Harris did his job. And then some.
Rookie receiver Cooper Kupp caught a pass over the middle and was nearing the goal line when Harris punched the ball loose and fell on it.
Asked if he thought it was the best play of his football career, the former undrafted rookie said, “Yeah, I kind of think so. It definitely was a big momentum-changer.”
Harris, a leader on special teams, was making his third start in place of Andrew Sendejo. His technique on the forced fumble showed veteran savvy.
“The first thing was to make the tackle,” he said. “And the second was to punch the ball out. I’ve practiced that a lot. Just stay aggressive and be around the ball.”
Much was written about the two defenses before the game. Both ranked in the top five in points allowed, but the Rams had a league-high 19 takeaways while the Vikings had 11.
There was one takeaway on Sunday. It came inside the 1-yard line in a tie game between two 7-2 teams. And the guy who made it probably won’t start Thursday if the guy ahead of him is healthy.
“I think I got the ability to start in this league,” said Harris, who has eight career starts. “I’ve been comfortable starting for a while. If they need me to just play special teams, that’s cool. If they need me to start, I’m here.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL