EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Anthony Barr was the first player drafted by the Minnesota Vikings after Mike Zimmer took over as coach.
The reasons for the preference, quickly apparent in Barr's rookie year, have become that much more obvious in his second season. Blitzing, tackling, covering, whatever. Barr's vast skill set is thriving in this dynamic defense the Vikings are running.
''He has a freaking cast on his hand. The dude is impressive,'' cornerback Terence Newman said.
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Barr broke his left hand Nov. 8 against St. Louis, but has not missed a game. His performance Sunday at Atlanta might've been his best yet.
''The sky's the limit for the guy. There are so many things you can do with him,'' Zimmer said, adding: ''He is that type of player that can ruin a lot of things for the offense.''
The Falcons found out about that in a 20-10 victory that pushed the Vikings back into sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
– In the first quarter, Barr tracked down running back Tevin Coleman after a 46-yard gain and punched the ball out to force a fumble the Vikings recovered at their 21. Safety Antone Exum, who had slowed Coleman down, said he was surprised to see Barr suddenly appear.
– In the second quarter, Barr read a short pass in the flat to wide receiver Roddy White and tackled him for a 1-yard loss.
– In the third quarter, on first-and-goal at the 1 for the Falcons, Barr joined nose tackle Linval Joseph at the line to stop Coleman. Newman eventually intercepted Matt Ryan in the end zone to thwart that drive.
– In the fourth quarter, the Falcons sent Coleman on a wheel route up the right sideline on first down from their 39. Barr was with him step for step and reached out to knock down Ryan's pass for an incompletion.
– Then, on fourth-and-1 on the same possession, Barr blitzed and sacked Ryan for an 8-yard loss to force another fumble that the Falcons meaninglessly recovered.
''We really just try to stress `do your job' and let the big plays happen, don't force `em,'' Barr said. ''I think that guys are starting to understand that and take a sense of pride in.''
Zimmer said he's seen Barr become more vocal and intense this season. He prodded him last week to increase his hustle and, not coincidentally, the forced fumble at the end of Coleman's long run followed.
''Once I saw him break free, I just figured, `Why not run for the ball and see what happens?''' Barr said.
At UCLA, Barr began his career as a fullback and a tight end before switching to defense as a junior. His jarring sack of Matt Barkley that knocked the USC quarterback out of that game in 2012 was considered a turning point in a rivalry that was dominated by the Trojans over the previous decade-plus. That was the first of three straight wins by the Bruins.
''He's a great guy, just very relaxed, walks slower than most, just kind of saunters around, but when it's game time, man, you can just see it in his eyes,'' said Vikings punter Jeff Locke, a teammate of Barr's at UCLA. ''His eyes light up. He's got a fire in there.''
NOTES: After missing the game in Atlanta, safety Harrison Smith (knee) returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. Safety Andrew Sendejo (knee), also absent against the Falcons, was out along with Joseph (foot). Asked if he foresees a possibility of both Smith and Sendejo being out for another week, Zimmer said, ''There's a chance if I lose 100 pounds, I could be a jockey. How do I know? I wouldn't know if guys are going to play yet or not.''
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