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Is it time to make Anthony Barr a pure pass rusher?

Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws in front of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr (55) during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

After Anthony Barr’s first two seasons, he was considered one of the most effective all-around linebackers in the league. But a down 2016 season has created reasonable doubt about his future.

From 2015 to 2016, the former ninth-overall pick from UCLA saw his numbers go down across the board. Fewer sacks, fewer solo tackles, fewer forced fumbles, fewer stuffed runs, fewer passes defended and fewer interceptions.

And there was also this – his disturbing Pro Football Focus grade:

The Vikings showed belief in Barr by picking up his fifth-year option for 2018 (worth over $12 million), but both head coach Mike Zimmer and Barr acknowledged the drop in his play last year. The 25-year-old linebacker said during voluntary offseason workouts that he had figured out the issue and had a plan to fix it.

A deeper dive into Barr’s play reveals a possible solution: Rush the passer more often.

A large portion of Barr’s poor overall PFF grade was his coverage, which ranked 71st of 87. He allowed 517 yards in coverage last year compared 361 in 2015. His coverage numbers indicate that teams gameplanned to attack him through the air, especially as they worked to avoid throwing in Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith’s direction. Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistics, the Vikings were second best in the NFL against opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers, but 24th versus tight ends.

While Barr’s results in coverage were poor, he was still ranked by PFF as the fifth best pass-rushing interior linebacker, only behind Bobby Wagner, Dont’a Hightower, Thomas Davis and Ryan Shazier.

Listen to Matthew Coller discuss Anthony Barr’s game on Mackey and Judd

In 1025 snaps, Barr rushed the passer 121 total times, which was the 12th highest rate among linebackers (not to be mistaken for edge rushers).

Going back to when he was drafted by the Vikings, many saw Barr as a pass rusher. His Draft Profile Bottom Line starts with this sentence: “A highly disruptive, athletic specimen with the pass-rush potential to effortlessly emerge as a double-digit sack producer.”

Barr was even more effective rushing the passer in 2015, which might be in part because he was used differently.

Below is the areas (by percentage) where Barr lined up when he rushed. Blue is 2015, red 2016. Notice he came after the quarterback less from the inside LB spot by a significant margin (63.5% to 49.6%) and off the edge more often.


In the second half of the season, it appeared Zimmer went away from the Double-A Gap Blitz, which has been a staple of his defenses and includes Barr rushing from the middle.  It’s hard to say exactly why the Vikings started using the middle blitz less, but it could stem from a 42-yard run by Theo Reddick in Minnesota’s first matchup with Detroit. It’s possible Zimmer was concerned that opponents were using runs up the middle to beat the blitz.

Here’s how the excellent football analysis website Inside the Pylon explains the Double-A Gap Blitz:

“A defensive maneuver in which two linebackers execute a blitz through both A gaps (on either side of the center) in order to apply pressure on the quarterback as quickly as possible by taking the shortest linear route to the passer. A variant, the Crossfire blitz, has the linebackers cross over each other’s path, switching sides and blitzing through the A gap opposite their initial alignment in a maneuver similar to a stunt or twist by defensive linemen.”

It’s clear Barr is effective when rushing from the linebacker spot. If Zimmer wanted to increase the number of rush snaps, he could mix in zone blitzes.

This great breakdown from Bleacher Report has explanations of a bunch of football concepts, including a zone blitz. Here’s how it works:

Barr might not be happy playing fewer downs, but his pure pass-rushing role could look more like that of Dont’a Hightower, who played 864 snaps and rushed 171 times. That’s 161 fewer total plays than Barr and 50 more rushes.

Sending Barr after the quarterback at a higher rate would put pressure on Eric Kendricks as the Vikings play around 70% nickel packages, but many teams (including New England) have put their focus on shutting down the pass, even if it means giving up more in the run game.

Zimmer has been known for finding ways to maximize the talents of defensive players a la moving Linval Joseph to nose tackle, Captain Munnerlyn to slot corner and having Danielle Hunter stand up when coming off the edge. We might see some creativity with Barr in 2017, whether that means rushing up the middle more or sending him off the edge with regularity.

No matter which approach, getting Barr even more involved with the pass rush could be the key to getting the Vikings’ former first-round pick back to top-notch status.

  • linus

    This is one of those articles that makes it incredibly clear just how short a time Coller has been covering the Vikings. Yes, Barr had a down year last season, but nobody who watched him play regularly during his first two seasons would suggest that he should only be used as a pass rusher.

    • linus

      And it’s even more ridiculous to suggest that his reputation coming out of college is a better indicator of his abilities than what he did during his first two seasons in the league.

  • PurpleFaithful

    I think having a 3 tech who can hold up in front of barr would really help. Floyd played quite a bit in 2015, and did not in 2016. That was the problem. Move Joseph to 3 tech and sign wilfork for the 1 on running downs. Take wilfork off on pass downs, slide joseph, and put johnson/jones in. Then watch Barr light it up again.

  • Gordon Guffey

    So Barr had a down year ~ It happens to a lot of player ~ I trust Zimmer to get the best out of him ~ Bottom line is Barr made another pro bowl last year so he wasn’t playing to poorly ~

    • Aaron Caplinger

      Pro bowl selections are meaningless these days. If you actually watched his play, it was apparent that he did, in fact, play poorly. That’s the true bottom line.

      • Gordon Guffey

        It may be true as I said ~ But he isn’t the first player to have a bad year after playing so well sense being drafted ~ Nor will he be the first player to rebound if he does ~ All I was saying is one off year is not the end of the world for a player or a team ~

    • Mike Kano

      Almost all football honors handed out these days have little meaning. Pro Bowl, NFL Top 100, even the All Pro designations have little to do with actual play on the field. It is mostly based upon reputation, even when the play on the field doesn’t come close to the reputation.

      About the only football honor which still has merit is Hall of Fame.

    • MarkWattsMN

      Everyone makes the pro bowl these days. The pro bowl Teddy made had about 18 QBs invited.

  • Andre Esters

    Thats the amazing thing about over-thinking strategies… it might lack variety and glam, but keeping it simple always has a way of shining through.
    Either its something that can be placed on the coaches, or maybe Barr did magically have a major laspe in progression. I like to believe its more on the coaches trying different approaches. Hopefully this upcoming season when Zimmer says he’s going back to basics and being who he is… it might help the defense harken back to those overzealous 5-0 comparisons of last season.

  • FL Viking

    I’m going to answer this very quickly. You are way off on this one. Put away the metrics and think about these guys as professionals. He is going into year 3 of his career. Year 3! You want to limit his growth after 2 years. That’s not only illogical; it’s irresponsible for a man that writes for sports as a living to take a pro bowl player and limit his opportunity for growth after 2 seasons. I know it’s the off-season but this is way out in left field to me.

    Regardless, good job presenting the metrics that showed he had a down year. I wouldn’t have figured it out without them from the eye test. 🙂

  • Jeeves

    I like Barr a lot, but found myself yelling at the TV many times last year when it looked like he was using less than 100% effort. It has been suggested that he was dinged up with several different minor injuries most of the year. That may have been part of it.
    Thing is, we seem to have two types of fans. The first type criticize everything and everybody. The second type gets riled at any perceived criticism of our beloved Vikings. I am much closer to being of the 2nd type than the 1st.
    I think Matt offered a fair assessment here. No need to be overly sensitive. He’s inciting discussion, which is in his job description. SKOL!

  • Bud Viking


  • styx rogan

    bar is the new geenway


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