EAGAN, Minn. — Anthony Barr crept forward, reached the line of scrimmage just as the ball was snapped, burst across untouched, pushed around and past Kenyan Drake, and sacked Ryan Tannehill from behind.
Before his first step, Barr’s muscles had twitched in readiness to sniff out the quarterback.
This is my play.
Those words play in the linebacker’s mind when a defensive play calls for him to blitz.
“Anytime I get to go and be that extra rusher, I feel like I have to take advantage of it,” Barr said. “And I think once you have some success with it, it definitely even heightens that excitement. It heightens that intensity and that urgency, and it makes you just want to keep going more and more and more. And I think having success gives the coaches more confidence in calling those plays.”
Barr’s 3.0 sacks on the season have all come in the past two games. His career best in a single season was 4.0 as a rookie in 2014.
Barr told media members following the Dolphins game that he feels most natural when he is going forward instead of backward. And earlier this week, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said that Barr lately seems to be operating on “another level.”
“He’s played outstanding, really the last month or so, maybe a little longer,” Zimmer said. “Playing with great physicality, effort to the ball. He is doing a lot better in his pass rushing. I think there were some times the other day [against Miami] that he showed up quite a bit on it.”
So, what’s changed?
There are a number of factors, Barr decided after thinking for a moment.
“I think early on I was maybe playing more on my heels and thinking too much, really, instead of just reacting and playing, going out there and having a good time,” Barr said.
“I think when I’m at my best, I hear the call, and I can just react to it,” he added. “I don’t really need to think about it too much. I can just not worry about what the offense is doing but understand what I have to do and go out there and just do it fast. And if you mess up, then, hey – so be it. But at least you’re going to go out there and do it at a high speed, and I think that’s more so where I’m at now. […] A lot of different things have played into it, obviously, scheme and what I’m being asked to do plays a part into it because I’m playing more to my strength, I believe. But just having that mentality [of playing carefree] while still caring, is helpful.”
Barr’s evolution as a pass rusher began two years before the Vikings selected him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
After starting out as a running back at UCLA, Barr switched to defense, lining up as a 3-4 outside linebacker under new Head Coach Jim Mora, Jr. He recalled his first season learning a new position, just “running around” and trying to figure it out.
“I was making mistakes left and right, you know?” Barr said with a laugh. “But I was really just trying to play fast, play physical and prove that I’m able to do it. And then my following year was really, ‘OK, now I can take another step mentally and just try to redefine my pass-rushing moves and stuff like that.’ ”
Barr learned the role, but he said he never became “technically sound” at the college level – it never truly was required of him. While he described his Bruins coaches as “great,” Barr added that they taught a reliance on one’s natural athleticism rather than detailed technique.
Barr felt well-equipped for the NFL’s big stage but believes he was a bit hindered at the pro level by his learned approach.
“I think it kind of hurt me early on in my career because I was still relying on athletic ability, which is not going to fly at this level,” Barr said. “You have to be able to have some tools.”
When Zimmer selected Barr, his first draft pick at the helm for Minnesota, he asked the linebacker to play off the ball in a 4-3 scheme – an entirely new position for the young athlete.
Barr compared the transition, and his reaction to it, to his initial switch from offense to defense.
“It was like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I have to buy in, and I have to just, whatever they’re telling me, eat it, go out there and try to be perfect.’ Fortunately for me, it was new, so I didn’t really have any bad habits yet,” Barr said. “Whatever they told me was like, ‘OK.’ This is all you know how to do, so you go out and do it the right way.”
View the Vikings 2019 Pro Bowlers in photos.
Learning to play off the ball initially was a challenge and pulled Barr from pass-rushing responsibilities he had an affinity for – but he’s grateful for the process that developed him into a much more versatile defender.
Barr has demonstrated an ability over the past four seasons to line up in different places on the field and be effective. Here and there, he’s implemented in blitz plays. But lately the 26-year-old has rushed passers more frequently in a role he feels plays most to his strengths.
Barr has the physical build and traits of a pass rusher but also has continued to grow from a technical standpoint.
After all, he’s learning from the best in the business.
During Organized Team Activities this spring and into Training Camp, Barr spent time working with the linebackers as well as with the defensive linemen. Interestingly, he’ll tell you that the practice drills weren’t the most beneficial part of the process. Rather, it was observing and taking mental notes.
“Watching Everson [Griffen] work, watching Danielle [Hunter] work, watching B-Rob (Brian Robison) when he was here. Watching Sheldon [Richardson] get his move, watching Tom [Johnson] do his stuff,” Barr said. “These guys have been successful at it, they’ve been doing it so well, so it makes you feel more a part of it – it makes you really focus in.
“I feel like I consume more knowledge just by being there,” Barr continued. “Maybe I wasn’t doing much. Maybe I was just watching, but by watching and then by applying it, it’s more beneficial than just throwing on the tape – just feeling them and being around those guys, it’s more beneficial for me.”
Barr understands that not every game will be a repeat of the two-sack contest against Tannehill. But he’s grateful to coaches for giving him opportunities to play in multiple roles, and he’s learned what it means to be patient – while also being impatient.
Barr explained the mindset he’s learned from Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
“You have to be patient, your time’s going to come, but you also have to press the issue. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to come,” Barr said. “You have to make those opportunities present themselves. But you can’t become impatient when it doesn’t come right away. It’s going to take some time. You have to do it to really be successful at it.”
Barr referenced an example Patterson gave him over the summer: Griffen played 789 snaps during the 2017 season and finished with a career-high 13 sacks, a number that helped earn him a nod to the Pro Bowl.
“What [Coach Patterson was teaching me] is that it’s one of the hardest things to do in sports, rushing the passer,” Barr said. “If you’re a baseball player and you hit 14 out of 800, you’re not even sniffing the league. But if you do it in the NFL, 14 out of 800, you’re going to the Pro Bowl, right? You’d be an All-Pro.
“I can’t just do it 20 times throughout the season and expect there to be some impact,” Barr added. “There has to be a more conscious approach to do it consistently, and then you’ll see some success out of it.”
Zimmer and Patterson preach the mantra that stats don’t tell the whole story. Sacks are not the end-all, be-all for Minnesota’s defenders – rather, the emphasis is on “affecting” the quarterback, whether or not you get him down.
It’s a philosophy Barr believes in. But that doesn’t take away from times he and his teammates are able to close the deal.
“Sacking the quarterback is one of the most impactful ways to stall a drive in the NFL. You’ve got turnovers and you’ve got sacks, and that really puts the team behind the 8-ball,” Barr said. “If you’re getting after the quarterback and you’re getting a lot of sacks, you’re probably being pretty successful on defense because it’s typically taking the offense out of that drive.
“Whoever it is, it’s contagious. The energy is contagious; you can feel it,” Barr added. “Everyone thinks, ‘Well, I must be next, right? Because I just saw everybody else get one, so it’s my turn.’ I think that definitely heightens the urgency to go and get some.”
While sacks aren’t the defense’s focus, the Vikings have certainly “gotten some” this season. Minnesota currently tops the NFL with 47 sacks through 14 games, already 10 more than the 37 they finished with in 2017.
Moving forward, Barr hopes he’ll continue to be used to rush the passer, but his main priority is helping his team succeed.
Zimmer said that Barr’s football I.Q. and versatility has enabled him to be effective in multiple ways.
“He has a really good grasp on what we’re doing defensively. He has a good grasp on what the offense is doing,” Zimmer said. “He can communicate to the defensive line and the other linebackers, and I think that helps a lot to be able to do the things we are trying to do.”
Barr is proud of being able to affect an offense the way he does, whether directly or indirectly.
“If I can free up somebody and give them a 1-on-1 matchup, like if we get Danielle on a tackle, I’m taking Danielle 10 out of 10 times. Same with Everson – if we get those guys in a 1-on-1, more often than not they’re winning their matchups. Maybe I’m not getting the sacks, maybe I’m not causing the pressures, my numbers might not be crazy, but I feel like I can help other guys be successful.
“Since , we’ve been a top-five defense,” Barr said. “We’re top-five again so far this year, so we’re doing something right. My stats might not blow you away, but my defensive team stats are really good – and that’s more so what I take pride in.”