Linebacker Anthony Barr had two of the nine sacks on quarterback Ryan Tannehill during the Vikings’ 2018 victory over the Dolphins, spearheading a blitz package near the height of its powers with veteran defenders at every level under coach Mike Zimmer.
Now leading the 2-0 Titans offense into U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, Tannehill is in the more established position as Zimmer’s Vikings enter their first game since Barr sustained a season-ending pectoral injury.
For the first time since Barr was drafted in 2014’s first round, the Vikings will be without their do-it-all linebacker for most of a season. Coaches are pulling strings this week on a Vikings defense now without its primary blitzer and one of its top communicators.
“We’re going to have to do some things different than we would if he was in there,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said via videoconference Thursday. “But I’m very confident with Eric Wilson playing a much larger role for us. He’s done a great job when he’s gotten the chance to play, in not only the base [defense] but in the [nickel]. I’m confident he can step in and help us win.”
The Vikings are turning to Wilson, a fourth-year player who has made 11 spot starts in the past and will now play every snap opposite Eric Kendricks.
The Vikings also signed veteran linebacker Todd Davis, a four-year starter for the Broncos, on Thursday. Davis, an inside linebacker, has cleared entry testing for COVID-19 and could eventually play a run-stopping role on early downs after leading the Broncos in tackles each of the past two years. Davis’ five-year run in Denver ended in his release after a calf injury this summer.
The Vikings’ options were thin, and then rookie Troy Dye was placed on injured reserve Thursday because of an ankle injury suffered in Indianapolis.
Passing downs are when Barr’s skills are particularly hard to replace. Coaches will have to get more “creative,” Adam Zimmer said, in accentuating Wilson’s strengths after tailoring so much of the pressure packages to Barr.
Defensive coaches are searching for a spark, however it’s created, after only two sacks in two games. One sack was Colts quarterback Philip Rivers running out of bounds behind the line.
Wilson had three sacks in six starts last season, showing his development into a reliable three-down linebacker. Coaches compared Wilson to Kendricks earlier in his career, when he would overrun plays without the patience needed to let the ball come to him.
Wilson already had taken the weakside linebacker role in the base defense last year when Ben Gedeon was placed on injured reserve. And in Indianapolis, during his first snap replacing Barr, Wilson got his first NFL interception off a deflected Rivers pass near his own goal line.
Coaches call Kendricks and Wilson “EK” and “E-Will” to clear up the communication, which they’ve said remains seamless on the field without Barr.
“Through whatever has happened, we both have that experience of calling the defense and knowing the adjustments,” Wilson said. “Just having two guys that can do that really well is very helpful for our defense.”
The Vikings defense needs all the help it can get. Without Barr, a four-time Pro Bowler and team captain with 87 NFL starts, they’re absent another foundational piece that helped set their lofty defensive standards under Mike Zimmer. After five consecutive years as a top-10 scoring defense, the Vikings have allowed 71 points in two losses this season.
Barr has seen and cataloged a lot during his first six NFL seasons, and the Vikings’ ability to adjust on the fly could take a hit without one of Zimmer’s go-to veterans up front. Barr’s intangibles will be missed most for a young defense trying to rebound, according to Zimmer.
“This is no knock on Anthony because I love him, he’s a great football player,” Zimmer said. “But you know, that leadership and the intelligence that he has, the way that myself and him can communicate during the game about different things and formations and adjustments. I think that will be a big difference.”
A new voice will emerge in the Vikings’ defensive huddle, but coaches have yet to decide whether Kendricks or Wilson will wear the in-helmet microphone to relay defensive play calls. But they’re counting on all the remaining veterans to keep the rest of the defense in line.
“We may let Eric Wilson do it, so that Eric [Kendricks] can do what he always does,” Adam Zimmer said. “It’s usually a collaborative effort, anyway, between those guys, between Harrison [Smith], between Anthony Harris. It really doesn’t matter who’s getting the call physically; it matters that we’re lined up in the right spots.”