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 NFL.com 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.