Mike Zimmer is a man of few kind words on the field. Read his lips during a broadcast or listen to him after a game in the locker room; you’ll be sure to hear some “bleeps” and “beeps” as he chastises a referee, grills his players, or reacts to the play of his defense. Zimmer’s an old-school coach, one who leaves the pleasantries at the door every Sunday in favor of a certain few four-letter words.
And every so often, Zimmer lets his guard down to tell the media how he really feels. When Bobby Petrino deserted the Atlanta Falcons — and Falcons defensive coordinator Zimmer — in 2007, Zimmer left nothing to the imagination, calling Petrino a coward and a “gutless MF“. Maybe that’s why yesterday’s 20-10 win over the Falcons was so important to Zimmer.
More important to Zimmer, though, is the progression of his young players and the growth of his football team. He’s opened up at the podium before, most notably last January when effusing praise on the team’s top cornerback, Xavier Rhodes. He did the same yesterday when asked about Anthony Barr, Minnesota’s second-year linebacker, who forced two fumbles on Sunday and continues to improve as an every-down linebacker in the league:
“Anthony is a special player, a special kid, as he continues to play he will be even better. I really think the sky is the limit for the guy. There are so many things you can do with him. He has been limited the last couple of weeks because of the hand and today we decided we would let him loose a little more, that was good and I think he has a very bright future and can be a tremendous football player.”
Zimmer’s tune hasn’t changed much since taking Barr with the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Shortly after the end of the first round that year, Zimmer described Barr as a “full grown man” with the potential to to be used “in a few different positions.” He played just two seasons at linebacker for the UCLA Bruins, but his athleticism, speed, and pass-rushing ability were enough to warrant a top-10 selection for the Vikings.
Like many analysts before the draft, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke questioned Barr’s immediate transition to the NFL. Every team needs an elite edge rusher, but in Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme, a rangy, versatile linebacker is just as important. Barr’s relative inexperience and struggles in such a role were hard to ignore at UCLA. He appeared lost in coverage at times, missed routine tackles, and often relied on his raw ability to beat tackles and tight ends off the edge. Still, Burke compared Barr to DeMarcus Ware coming out and said this about the hyper-talented, hybrid linebacker:
“Find any player with only two years of experience playing on the defensive side of the football and he will have many of the problems that Barr does. But Barr’s athleticism sets him apart.”
As it has so many times throughout his short career, Barr’s unique athleticism set him apart against the Falcons on Sunday. He finished the game with eight total tackles (two for loss), two forced fumbles, one sack and one pass deflection. Pro Football Focus gave Barr a positive grade (+3.7) for his performance and categorized his second season in the league as a “fantastic year” — high praise for a player who entered the league without a defined position.
He may be the Vikings’ starting strong side linebacker, but a more fitting name for Barr’s current role may be “playmaker.” From his impressive chase-down forced fumble of Tevin Coleman to his interception against the Broncos in Week 4, Barr has been at the center of a number of game-changing plays for Minnesota’s defense. Though he’s shown this ability before — think back to his game-winning forced fumble and touchdown in Tampa Bay last season — Barr is proving week-in and week-out that he’s one of the game’s best three-down linebackers.
To fans, it’s obvious that Barr is the perfect fit in Mike Zimmer’s defense. At 6’5″ and 255 pounds, he’s the last player opposing quarterbacks and running backs want to see across the line of scrimmage. But in Minnesota, his presence is impossible to ignore, with fans and teammates alike embracing his rise to the top of the league. From Chad Greenway, per the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan:
“He’s the guy with the microphone in his head, he’s the guy making the calls.” He can rush, he can cover, and with his size that makes him so valuable.’’