The Minnesota Vikings have secured themselves the NFC North for the first time since 2009 (where they went to the NFC Championship game) with a win over the Green Bay Packers this week.
That sets up a rematch with the Seattle Seahawks, who blew the Vikings out of the water earlier this season, 38-7.
The Vikings are 3-0 in rematch games this season but more importantly, they will roll into this game with their biggest and most important defensive stars back in the picture. Against Seattle the Vikings were without Linval Joseph to start the game, and both Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr were gone after 11 snaps.
While the season Joseph and Smith have had is relatively well publicized, the performance from Barr has been a little more under the radar. The job the Vikings have done in developing him in the NFL has been remarkable.
Barr was an edge rusher from UCLA when he came out of the draft, and while the Vikings immediately said he was a linebacker for them, most people envisaged a Von Miller or Bruce Irvin type role in which he would play two downs as a conventional 4-3 linebacker, only to kick down and rush from the edge in obvious passing situations in sub-packages. The Vikings haven’t done that with Barr, and though he is an important part of their pass-rush this season, it has come on the blitz from conventional 4-3 linebacker alignment and not from the edge as part of the defensive front.
Barr hasn’t become merely a credible stand-up linebacker — he's become one of the best in the NFL this season and has done so by performing well in all facets of the game, not merely those to which his pass-rushing experience would lend itself.
Barr has 23 total pressures which is tied for four among 4-3 linebackers, one off being tied for 2nd, but the rate in which Barr has generated pressure has been the best among all players at the position. Bruce Irvin leads all players at his position with 37 total pressures, but he has pass-rushed on 302 snaps thanks to his role in sub-packaged moonlighting as a true edge rusher – a role Barr does not have. Barr has rushed less than a third as often as Irvin, but has 62.2 percent of the pressures.
He has graded well against the run, ranking 11th in that category and notching the 10th-most stops against the run at his position.
Perhaps the most impressive area of Barr’s game though is his work in coverage, which is the most unnatural area for a former pass-rusher to excel. He has a top-three coverage grade among 4-3 linebackers and the fourth-best coverage grade among all off-the-ball linebackers.
Barr has surrendered only one touchdown all season in coverage and has been instrumental in the Vikings getting off the field by making tackles short of the first-down markers.
Mike Zimmer has crafted an impressive defense in Minnesota, and while the improved play of the defensive backfield and defensive line are getting the headline billing, the best coaching job might have been the development of Anthony Barr into one of the league’s best linebackers and the Vikings’ most important players on defense.
The Seahawks have been rolling down the stretch, but they're going to face a very different Minnesota Vikings defense in the playoffs — and no player makes more of that difference than Barr.