On a day when the Minnesota Vikings needed to win their fourth straight road game to stay alone atop the NFC North, the Vikings defense put in turnover-inducing game in a 20-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. They accomplished that despite missing starting safety Harrison Smith and losing the other starter at the position – Andrew Sendejo – early in the second quarter.
The defensive star of the game was Anthony Barr, who made plays early and late to help secure the win.
Head coach Mike Zimmer has extolled the virtues of Barr since the day he was drafted and the plays he made Sunday has his coach glowing about his performance, which included eight tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles.
“Anthony is a special player, a special kid,” Zimmer said. “As he continues to play, he’s going to be even better. I really think the sky’s the limit for this kid because there are so many things you can do with him. He’s been limited the last couple of weeks because of the hand (injury). Today we decided we were going to let him loose a little more. I just think he has a very, very bright future. He could be a tremendous football player.”
The first of Barr’s big plays came early. After the Vikings drove 78 yards in 13 plays to take a 7-0 lead, it appeared as though the Falcons were going to have a quick answer. On the first play of the ensuing drive, rookie Tevin Coleman broke loose a long run down the right sideline.
He had already gained 46 yards and was looking to put a move on Antone Exum to potentially score a touchdown, but Barr chased down the play, punched the ball out of Coleman’s hands and ended the drive, bringing to the field a point of emphasis that Zimmer had stressed during the week of practice.
“One of the things I addressed with him this week was that the last couple of games, he wasn’t hustling like the way I wanted him to,” Zimmer said. “For him to come back and do it like we expect him to do it was big. That was a great play he made.”
While Barr got things started early, it wasn’t the last time the Vikings would have some defensive heroics.
On their first drive of the second quarter, the Falcons went on a 13-play drive that got into the red zone, but the Vikings were able to stiffen in the red zone, bringing a full-out blitz on Matt Ryan to kill the drive, force Atlanta to kick a field goal and maintain a 7-3 lead.
On Atlanta’s only other possession of the first half, Ryan again had the offense on the move in the final two minutes, getting across midfield, but as he took a shot down the field to get Atlanta into field goal position, he was intercepted by Captain Munnerlyn – the last time the Falcons would have a shot at the Vikings in the first half.
Atlanta got the ball to start the second half and Ryan engineered another marathon drive. Asserting themselves on the ground, Ryan mixed in passes of 19 yards to Julio Jones and 20 yards to Roddy White around runs by Coleman and Terron Ward. At one point, Coleman had six straight carries, including what appeared to be a go-ahead touchdown. But a clipping call in the end zone on tight end Tony Moeaki negated the touchdown and, as the Falcons tried to make good on the drive, Terence Newman made his third interception in the last two games in the end zone – the fifth red zone turnover of the season for Atlanta.
After the Vikings kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 10-3, Everson Griffen took his turn in stepping up to be accounted for. With the Falcons looking to get their next drive started, a 12-yard sack on third down by Griffen set the stage for a final showdown in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings offense gave the defense a chance to rest with a 14-play drive that ate up 8:26 off the game clock. The Vikings had to settle for another field goal, but with a 13-3 lead, the Falcons were two scores behind and the Vikings defense was looking for the kill shot.
It came just four plays later. After a 44-yard kickoff return set up Atlanta in good field position, the Vikings got the stops needed to set up a fourth-and-1 from the 48-yard. The same early hero showed up again, as Barr shot through a gap, hit Ryan and forced a fumble that was recovered by an Atlanta lineman in the backfield to turn the ball over on downs.
The Vikings would put the game away on a 35-yard touchdown run by Adrian Peterson to give Minnesota a 20-3 lead. The Falcons would score a garbage-time touchdown as the Vikings forced Ryan to throw short passes over the middle and kill almost three minutes of the 4:15 that had remained in the game, scoring a meaningless touchdown with 1:28 to play to cut the deficit to 20-10.
In a game where the Vikings were shorthanded in the secondary and facing a desperate team at home, the team showed it could dominate a game on defense and win big games on the road in which they had to shut down a potent offense. The Vikings defense answered that call Sunday, putting in one if its best defensive performances of the season when it was needed the most.