The Vikings defense looked as dominant as it ever has in the season-opening victory over Atlanta, and the fact that both Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr recorded sacks showcased one of the underrated story lines of this season.
There was a point over the past year where both Griffen and Barr had uncertain futures with this club.
Griffen missed five games last season as he worked on his mental health following two police incidents. He had 33 tackles and 5½ sacks, his lowest totals for both since 2013.
But Griffen, who is signed through 2022, agreed to a pay cut for 2019, lowering his base salary from $10.9 million to $6.4 million this season to remain with the team.
Barr was hours away from signing with the New York Jets when the Vikings persuaded him to agree to a five-year, $67.5 million deal to stay here instead.
These two have been big thorns in the side of the Packers since they joined the Vikings — and over the past seven meetings, the Vikings are 5-1-1 against their top division rival.
Barr and Griffen are a key reason why no team has sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers more than the Vikings.
In Rodgers’ 15-year career, the Vikings have sacked him 64 times in 21 games. No other team even comes close, with the Bears the next closest with 46 sacks in 22 games.
Griffen has 11½ sacks, 24 QB hits and 48 tackles in 18 games vs. the Packers since joining the Vikings in 2010. The only opponent that he has more sacks against is the Lions (14 in 17 games).
Barr has only one sack in 10 career games vs. the Packers, but he has 40 tackles and five QB hits in those games. Of course, one of those hits came in Week 2 of the 2017 season, when Rodgers broke his collarbone and missed most of the rest of the season.
Defense has stayed together
Barr told me in the offseason that one of the big reasons he came back was how close the defense is.
“I think since coach [Mike Zimmer] has been here, we have done a great job of playing as a team, playing together and being kind of the heartbeat of the team,” he said. “I think if we can mesh well as a team, and gel, and get better in the critical situations — fourth-and-short, third-and-short, two-minute defense, beginning of the game, beginning of the half — if we do things like that, we’re going to have a good year.”
When it comes to the Packers, Barr said there’s no doubt these games are hugely important, even in Week 2.
“We have some big early division games and we know those are always the most important ones,” he said. “We have some early road games against Green Bay and Chicago [in Week 4], and we have to take care of business early and that will kind of set the tone early in the season. We’re a confident group. We didn’t play our best last year at certain times and we reflected on that.”
Griffen comes back strong
When it comes to Griffen, observers around the league expect a big season in 2019.
Pro Football Focus labeled him one of their biggest bounce-back candidates for the season.
His Week 1 performance surely showed that he is back at full strength. Griffen was all over Matt Ryan and had two quarterback hits to go with his sack.
Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, who has worked with Griffen for five years, said that Griffen looks like the same player he has always been in Minnesota.
“He is back to the same old Everson Griffen that we missed and loved,” Hunter said. “Very vocal. If anybody needs to find a way on how to do things, they look at him or look at me and the defensive line.”
One of a kind Gophers win
I’ve never seen a win like the Gophers had on Saturday over Georgia Southern to finish their wild nonconference schedule 3-0.
Late in the fourth quarter the Maroon and Gold gave up a blocked field goal for a touchdown and then watched as Tanner Morgan was sacked, fumbled and had that returned for a touchdown — all of which happened in a span of 3 minutes, 18 seconds, but they still found some way to win this game.
P.J. Fleck’s squad tried to beat themselves in this contest as that shocking turn of events turned a 28-20 Gophers lead to a 32-28 deficit with 3:47 left and no timeouts remaining.
But like their close wins over South Dakota State and Fresno State, you can credit the Gophers receivers for saving another win.
Rashod Bateman had the biggest play of the game in their opening win against SDSU, a 42-yard fingertip touchdown catch down the sideline.
In their win at Fresno State it was Chris Autman-Bell catching a 20-yard pass on fourth down with 46 seconds left to force overtime.
On Saturday it was Tyler Johnson, who finished with 10 receptions for 140 yards and three scores and capped off his day with the game-winning touchdown catch with 13 seconds left.
There’s no doubt that none of these nonconference games were dominant or pretty, but 3-0 is 3-0 and that’s all anyone will remember.
• After 16 home games, the Twins were averaging only 16,843 fans per game — last in the AL. But since then they have averaged 31,606 fans over 58 games and now rank fourth in the AL behind the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros.
• Byron Buxton became the starting center fielder for the Twins in 2016, and after being shut down he will have played in 347 of a possible 648 games, missing 301 games, mainly for injuries or demotions.
• One thing to watch in the final two weeks of the season is that Cleveland has interleague series with Philadelphia and Washington, with both fighting for an NL wild card spot. After Sunday’s series finale against the Indians, The Twins only face the White Sox, Royals and Tigers the rest of the way.
• The Twins have had their share of injuries this season, but they don’t come close to the Yankees, who have had 29 players on the disabled list this season, a major league record. And yet the Yankees still have been one of the best teams in baseball all season long.
• The Vikings are tied with the Packers and Cowboys at 16-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, according to Bovada. The Patriots are the favorites at 4-1 with the Chiefs 7-1. Meanwhile Pro Football Focus has the Vikings at No. 9 in their power rankings, fourth in the NFC behind the Saints, Rams and Eagles.
• You have to imagine the Gophers are less than thrilled that Purdue also has a bye week next week, meaning both teams have two weeks to prepare for their Big Ten Conference opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 28. Wisconsin and Michigan have a similar schedule; both were off Saturday and play next weekend in Madison.
• Former Vikings QB Case Keenum is taking his snaps with Washington from center Chase Roullier. The Burnsville native, a sixth-round pick out of Wyoming in 2017, was the only Redskins player to play every snap on offense in 2018.