When the 2016 season began, there was a consensus around the NFL that Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr was among the best at his position and one of the most exciting young defensive players in the league. But a down year pushed Barr and Mike Zimmer to search for answers this offseason.
With all the storylines surrounding Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota, it’s easy to overlook Barr vs. the Saints’ package of offensive weapons, which could be the most important matchup on the field Monday night. We will find out right away whether the Barr and Zimmer have found the antidote to his issues last season.
Showing progress will start against Drew Brees and the Saints’ prolific passing game.
Last season, it appeared opponents were targeting Barr in the passing game more often as he ranked 72nd of 75 in coverage by Pro Football Focus ratings last season. Safety Harrison Smith said that the Saints can use their running backs’ versatility to deceive defenses into thinking they are running and create mismatches.
“It allows them to create different formations out of personnel groups that you don’t always think of,” Smith said. “When you have those guys who can play slot receiver roles and things like that. They’ve got a lot of guys that they can split out of the backfield and move them around. You have to be aware of it and different calls.”
Running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are both quality receivers out of the backfield. Ingram caught 46 passes last year and Kamara had 74 receptions in two years with Tennessee.
“Ingram is very good coming out of the backfield, catches the ball well,” Zimmer said. “They use those guys in a lot of spread formations where there’s no backs in the backfield and try to put pressure on whoever is on them.”
It also appears tight end Colby Fleener will also be a big part of New Orleans’ attack with Brandin Cooks traded to New England and Willie Snead suspended.
ESPN writer Mike Triplett wrote that Fleener’s first year as a Saint was disappointing, though he picked up 50 receptions, so the Saints want to get him more involved.
“Going to the line with a better understanding and not panicking on the way to the line trying to figure out what’s going on, absolutely it’s a different ballgame,” Fleener said. “You can look a couple levels deeper than just the surface level, and I feel much better going into the season.”
“Fleener (a fluid athlete at 6-foot-6, 251 pounds) should be able to find holes in defenses down the seams or in the flats. However, he has not demonstrated the ability to make a lot of contested catches or stand out as a red-zone option.“
Just throwing this out there because it's interesting. Snead missed a game vs. Atlanta last year. Fleener had 20.3% of targets, 109 yds, TD.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) September 1, 2017
Will the Vikings try to avoid having Barr match up one-on-one with Fleener or trust him contest throws in Fleener’s direction? Nobody else on the Vikings’ defense has the height to match up against New Orleans’ tight end (aside from Hunter). Or will Zimmer try to create confusion by using things like Smith as a robber or zone blitzes? The Vikings may use a combination of all those options as the game goes along.
“I am constantly trying to figure out ways to use him more and more and more,” Zimmer said during training camp.
Among the new ways Zimmer might use Barr includes increasing his pass rush snaps. Last season, Barr rushed on 11.9% of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus data. That ranked 11th among all linebackers with more than 70 pass rushes. However, it was well below the top two three-down linebackers, Dont’a Hightower of New England (19.8%) and Houston’s Bernardrick McKinney (18.5%).
Neither New England or Houston plays a similar defense to Minnesota. The Patriots use far more dime packages and Houston has a 3-4 base. But mixing and matching schemes could be part of Zimmer’s plan to get the most out of Barr.
Getting after Brees will be essential to success against the Saints’ incredible passing game, which went for a league-leading 5,208 yards last year. According to Pro Football Focus metrics, Brees’s completion percentage dropped 16.6% when facing pressure. Easier said than done. Football Outsiders’ charting data lists the Saints as giving up the second fewest pressures in the NFL last year.
Asked on Thursday if he expects Barr to be more of a “playmaker” this season, Zimmer said:
“A lot of that depends on the game. It’s like, I expected Everson [Griffen] to be a playmaker all the time, but if they are putting two or three guys on him, things happen. It’s the same thing with Barr. I think he’s going to have a good year, he’s worked really hard this offseason, he’s improved on a lot of things that he needed to improve on, but each game is going to be different based on what other teams decide they want to do.”
Of course, if Barr isn’t the Vikings’ main source of pressure, there are plenty of other candidates. Everson Griffen will be matching up with a rookie left tackle and Danielle Hunter is darn-near unstoppable no matter who’s playing right tackle.
Of course, coverage and pass rushing only make up 2/3 of Barr’s duties. He’ll also be asked to play a major role in slowing down Peterson and the Saints’ running game.
Without Sharrif Floyd playing three-technique defensive tackle, the Vikings will have to rely on veteran Tom Johnson to play a large percentage of snaps – possibly the biggest chunk of his career. While Johnson is a terrific pass rusher, he isn’t known as a run stuffing three-tech.
The Saints could view Johnson and Barr as possible weak spots to attack in the running game. Barr struggled to get off blocks and finish tackles last year. He rated 68th of 88 against the run by Pro Football Focus tracking and 22.2% percentage of Barr’s attempted tackles were broken, up from 14.9% the previous year, per FO.
So if Barr struggles to slow down New Orleans in coverage or can’t shed blocks and make tackles, the Saints’ offense will certainly take advantage.
Simply put: Barr’s play combined with his usage vs. New Orleans won’t be at the top of the ESPN headline list, but it could be a determining factor for whether Minnesota comes away with an opening-night win.