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Zone Coverage: Vikings about to find out exactly how important Anthony Barr is

Sam Ekstrom runs through an in-depth film study of the polarizing linebacker.
Anthony Barr

This story first appeared at Zone Coverage and was re-shared through a collaboration with Bring Me The News

The Minnesota Vikings were counting on their defensive veterans to keep the unit strong as young corners and defensive linemen took their lumps. But they’ve played the first two games without Danielle Hunter, and now they’ll play the next 14 without Anthony Barr after he suffered a torn pectoral muscle late in the first quarter Sunday. The seventh-year linebacker was injured on a seemingly innocuous tackle against the Colts, another hit to a fledgling defense that has performed woefully to begin the 2020 season.

If Sunday’s game is any indication, there could be a tough transition as the Vikings adjust to life without Barr, who may be appreciated more in his absence than when he was on the field.

Barr hasn’t been the splashy player he was in his first couple seasons, but his impact has always been somewhat intangible. Barr receives the playcalls in his ear and communicates them to the defense. His past successes as a blitzer have forced opponents to account for Barr’s whereabouts at all times. And his chemistry with Eric Kendricks, dating back to their college years at UCLA, form an almost telepathic linebacker duo.

The Vikings will now have to play without Barr for the longest stretch of his Vikings career after his injury Sunday. “Anthony was our first draft pick that we’ve had when we came here,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “A big, integral part of the defense. Good leader, great guy. It’s tearing him up inside that he’s not going to be able to play, but it is what it is and we’ve got to move on.”

Here is the injury to Barr, which occurred on a tackle of Jonathan Taylor. Barr seems to try shaking off the injury and stays in for another play before exiting at the quarter break.

The first play after Barr’s injury went great for the Vikings. His replacement, Eric Wilson, intercepted a Harrison Smith deflection to keep the Colts off the board early in the second quarter.

After that, it was mostly downhill for the Vikings defense, and specifically, the linebacking corps.

Barr’s absence meant a heavier dose of Wilson, who played 67 snaps. Wilson’s elevation to the third linebacker spot was well-deserved, but his liabilities in the run game were on display Sunday as he posted a team-low 29.8 PFF grade against the run, the third-lowest score of all qualified linebackers in Week 2.

Below you can see Wilson (No. 50) getting walled off and taken to the ground by Braden Smith (No. 72) on a seven-yard run by Taylor. That was a fairly common occurrence against the Colts.

Wilson’s smaller, quicker frame makes him a better coverage linebacker than a tackler, and while he earned his elevated status by working hard at his tackling in 2019, the warts that existed earlier in his career showed up on Sunday. The Vikings also tried a double-A gap pressure with Wilson and Kendricks. While Kendricks registered a pressure, Wilson was stonewalled by Quenton Nelson (No. 56).

Rookie Troy Dye is the same weight as Wilson at 230 pounds and received his first meaningful playing time with 21 snaps against Indianapolis after Barr’s injury. From the looks of Sunday’s game tape, Dye is going to encounter similar issues as Wilson in the physical parts of the game. “I thought Troy came in and did some good things,” Zimmer said. “He had a couple missed tackles, but he ran pretty well.”

The head coach stayed encouraging is his comments on the fourth-round pick, but Dye appeared easily overpowered on film in his first test in place of Barr, primarily playing the strongside linebacker spot. Dye also posted an abysmal 26.0 tackling grade, per PFF, another demonstration of a young player that seemingly could have used preseason games to get more comfortable.

Below you can see Dye getting bullied by Anthony Castonzo (No. 74).

Here he does a nice job getting off his block but misses his tackle attempt on Taylor.

And again below, Dye goes untouched into the backfield for a chance at a TFL but ends up whiffing on the tackle and taking Kendricks out in the process.

After playing through injury and struggling in 2016, Barr had improved his tackling metrics each season, ending 2019 with 33 run stops and only four missed tackles. His increasing consistency in that area will be hard to replace.

It was evident the Vikings didn’t entirely trust Dye to play Barr’s role, since they sometimes kept him off the field on rushing downs, instead opting to use safety Harrison Smith in the box as a run blitzer. For instance, a 2nd and 1 when trailing by 15 points in the third quarter would usually scream base defense, but the Vikings used Smith around the edge, and he actually drew a penalty on Michael Pittman Jr.

The Vikings did, however, show one look with Dye that was very reminiscent of Barr, lining him up as a blitzing threat off the right tackle before dropping back in coverage.

And who’s in line after Dye? It would seem to be Ryan Connelly, the Eden Prairie product who the Vikings signed to the roster the week before the season. He spelled Dye for one snap in the first half of Sunday’s game, and it was an unfortunate one: A missed tackle on a 2nd and 3 that resulted in a first down for the Colts.

Barr’s duties as the green-dot wearer will move to Kendricks, who should be comfortable in that role as a vocal piece of the defense. But the Vikings seemed a bit disorganized before the snap on Indy’s first touchdown with Kendricks directing traffic at the last second.

“Once Barr went out, it got a little confusing because Eric (Kendricks) was trying to get the calls from the headset and then make the calls and get guys lined up,” Zimmer said. “So that got a little confusing.”

It’s fair to grant the Vikings some leeway having to adjust to Barr’s absence on the fly. Some of the communication issues or misfits can be cleaned up with practice, and Dye should only improve with time. Unfortunately for the Vikings, time is something they don’t have much of with the physical Tennessee Titans coming to Minneapolis on Sunday, featuring bruising back Derrick Henry. The injury losses of Ben Gedeon and Cameron Smith — two linebackers that weren’t shy around contact — sting more than ever.

Wilson and Dye aren’t going to grow four inches and 20 pounds overnight. Their lack of physicality against the Colts showcased a void that will be tough to fill for the rest of the season.

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