Anthony Barr punched a ball out early and helped the Vikings deliver the knockout Sunday in a 20-10 victory against the Falcons.
The second-year linebacker forced two fumbles (one recovered by teammate Antone Exum, Jr.; the other during a sack on a fourth-down play) and had an important pass breakup while covering Atlanta rookie running back Tevin Coleman on a wheel route in the fourth quarter.
Hustle — and a solid effort by Exum to slow down Coleman — enabled Barr to chase the runner from behind after a 46-yard gain on the Falcons fourth offensive play of the game. As Exum approached near the sideline, Coleman tried to execute a cutback, but Exum slowed him, allowing Barr to make up 10 yards before upper-cutting the ball loose.
"'Tone' slowed him down a little, and he was kind of carrying the ball a little loose, so I tried to make a play on the ball, and fortunately we got it," Barr said.
Exum, who started in place of safety Harrison Smith (knee injury), saved the touchdown and collected the first of three Falcons turnovers. It was Exum's first fumble recovery of his two-year career.
"I saw him hit the hole and knew I was the last line of defense so I just tried to save the touchdown," Exum said. "I'm running to the ball and stay high on him, make him slow down. Barr did a wonderful job of hustling to the ball and getting* *that ball out. I just tried to find it."
Barr has been dealing with a hand injury, but handled big plays Sunday. He broke up a deep pass from Matt Ryan to Coleman with the Vikings up 13-3 with six minutes left, and after Exum kept Nick Williams shy of the chains on a third-down play, Barr blitzed on fourth-and-1, sacking Ryan and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Atlanta (6-5) but resulted in the ball going to Minnesota (8-3) on downs.
Adrian Peterson followed with a 35-yard touchdown run three plays later, capping his 29-carry, 158-yard, two-touchdown day.
"One of the things I addressed with him this week was something about, in the last couple of games, he wasn't hustling the way I wanted him to, so for him to come back today and do it like we expect him to do it was big," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "That was a great play that he made, the wheel route was a heck of a play. I think he got the sack on fourth down. He's that type of player. He's a guy that can ruin a lot of things for the offense."
Barr said he thinks Atlanta had a breakdown in communication that "just set me free" on the blitz.
"I was able to get there pretty fast and get the back to our offense," Barr said.
They were the fourth and fifth forced fumbles of Barr's career. He has 2.5 sacks on the season and 6.5 for his career.
Both Barr and Zimmer said they feel there's still room for the 2014 first-round pick to improve.
"I still feel like I didn't play great," Barr said. "There's a lot of areas where I wish I could have done better here and there."
Zimmer said Barr is "going to be even better."
"I really think the sky is the limit for the guy," Zimmer said. "There's so many things you can do with him. He's been limited the last couple of weeks because of the hand and today we decided we were going to let him loose a little more. That was good. I just think he's got a very, very bright future. He could be a tremendous football player."