The sharks roaming the Vikings defense smelled blood. Third-and-long, crowd going nuts, a popgun Baltimore Ravens offense on its heels.
Everson Griffen lives for those moments.
“You get to pin your ears back and rush,” he said.
To his left, Anthony Barr darted back and forth along the line, making it impossible to know if he was going to blitz or drop into coverage. He pounced on everything in his vicinity Sunday, staying a step ahead of the Ravens offense all game.
“He’s hitting, he’s running, he’s making big plays,” Griffen said of Barr.
On the back end, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes had that area on lockdown, too.
“You play like when you’re a kid out there just loving the game,” Smith said.
There’s a lot to love about the Vikings defense right now. They swarmed and suffocated the Ravens so thoroughly in a 24-16 victory that Joe Flacco probably felt like he spent three hours confined to a straitjacket.
Their defense is cohesive, stingy, physically intimidating and a bunch of other superlatives that point directly to cumulative talent. And right now, the Vikings are receiving All-Pro contributions at all three levels of their defense from Griffen, Barr, Smith and Rhodes.
“I wouldn’t just single us out,” Smith said. “Everyone is playing at a high level.”
He’s right. It’s hard to pinpoint a weak link when the sum looks so dominant. But the performance of those four individuals in particular this season makes their defense as formidable as any in the NFL.
“We are doing our jobs at a high level,” Griffen said of his entire defense.
Nobody is doing their job better than Griffen, who sacked Flacco twice to extend his sack streak to all seven games. That tied him with Jim Marshall for the longest sack streak to start a season in team history.
“He’s just an all-day work for whoever he’s playing against,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley drew that short straw and had fits trying to stop Griffen’s mix of moves. Griffen is a menace as an edge rusher because he can collapse a pocket with speed or power, and he never presses pause. He’s second in the NFL in sacks with nine.
“You’ve got to put two on him if you want to stop him,” Barr said. “Not many tackles are going to block him one-on-one through a whole game. If you drop back 30 times, he’s going to win half of those times.”
Rhodes doesn’t get to watch Griffen stalk quarterbacks because he’s running in coverage with his back to the line of scrimmage. He just waits for the celebration.
“Once I see him do the sack daddy dance,” Rhodes said, “I know he did his job.”
Barr is challenging Griffen for highlight plays in what has become a bounce-back season. He was everywhere Sunday in collecting 11 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup. Barr sniffed out screen passes as if he heard the Ravens’ play call in the huddle.
“He’s been playing with a lot of fire, tenacity,” Zimmer said. “The guy is just playing really good right now. I love big, fast, physical guys, and he kind of fits that bill.”
Barr’s hit that injured Aaron Rodgers last week put him in a national spotlight and made him a bull’s-eye for criticism. But what shouldn’t get lost is Barr’s re-emergence as a big-play linebacker after his disappointing 2016 season.
For whatever reason, he didn’t look like himself last season. He was invisible at times. That’s certainly not the case this season.
“I’m just in a good place mentally,” he said. “I’m confident. It’s a testament to my teammates and my coaches because they continued to believe in me. I believe in myself. It’s paying off.”
The entire defense is being rewarded for his stellar play. Same thing with Griffen, Smith and Rhodes. They prefer to keep the focus on the unit as a whole and not be singled out individually, an unselfish attitude that permeates the Vikings defense.
Their star power is impossible to miss, though.