Barr, seasoned Vikings defense off to strong start
EAGAN, Minn. — Before the first snap of the season, the Minnesota Vikings settled into their usual spots before a slight shift by defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen to their left.
The second after that, defensive end Everson Griffen shuffled out of his extra-wide alignment to move directly in front of Atlanta's Jake Matthews. Linebacker Anthony Barr crept up to the line of scrimmage in Griffen's vacated space and, once Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back, made a beeline for the pocket for an 8-yard sack off a free rush after a disrupted Matthews blocked Griffen instead.
Just one play into the 2019 schedule, the Vikings defense was already rolling.
"That sack really set the tone," Joseph said, complimenting head coach Mike Zimmer's aggressive call at the start of the 28-12 victory over the Falcons on Sunday. "Everybody fed off that play."
For good measure, when Ryan took off on third-and-long, Barr finished the opening drive by racing over from the opposite side to make a diving tackle 2 yards short of the marker. The Falcons had to punt, Eric Wilson blocked it, and the offense took advantage of the shortened field with a quick touchdown.
This was the feeling, neutralizing an opponent in front of a loud crowd with a collection of accomplished players and close friends in a system they've thrived in, Barr did not want to miss when he decided to stay with Minnesota instead of joining the New York Jets this offseason.
"This is home," Barr said, "and I was happy to be back."
After his verbal agreement with the Jets that day in March, Barr slept for only a few hours after realizing the strength of the bond he'd built with the Vikings and of his familiarity with Zimmer's 4-3 scheme in which he is an integral part. After Barr told the Vikings he wanted to stay and they moved some money around to make the salary cap work, the four-time Pro Bowl pick was able to keep that purple jersey after all with a five-year contract valued at $67.5 million with $33 million guaranteed.
"You give him some money, and he can do a lot of different things," Joseph said. "He is living up to the hype."
The decision meant so much to safety Harrison Smith that, in an interview later, his voice cracked with emotion. The success the Vikings have enjoyed on defense is owed to individual talent and coaching acumen, of course, but system continuity can't be left off the list.
With Smith, Joseph, Griffen, Barr and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings have five starters who've been around for all of Zimmer's six seasons. Linebacker Eric Kendricks, cornerback Trae Waynes, strong safety Anthony Harris and defensive end Danielle Hunter have five years each in the scheme. Stephen, who spent last season with Seattle before returning as a free agent, also is in his fifth year.
"We have a chemistry," Stephen said. "We kind of know where guys are going to be. We know how people rush. We know how people like to play their position."
The elbow injury suffered by cornerback Mackensie Alexander was about the only discouraging development from the opener for the Vikings, particularly given that the opposing quarterback this week is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. His absence in the second half against the Falcons thrust safety Jayron Kearse into primary duty in slot coverage in the nickel package, with rookies Kris Boyd and Mark Fields the only other options for the time being.
Mike Hughes, whose ACL tear was 11 months ago, has been practicing this week on a limited basis. He's on the verge of clearance, which would give the Vikings a welcomed boost behind starters Rhodes and Trae Waynes.
For more depth, the Vikings promoted cornerback Nate Meadors from the practice squad to the active roster and placed wide receiver Josh Doctson on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Doctson, who was listed as a limited participant in practice on Wednesday, must miss a minimum of eight weeks if he's designated for a return. Meadors went undrafted out of UCLA. He had a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown in an exhibition game last month.