TAMPA, Fla. -- The play began, as Mike Zimmer reminded Anthony Barr, with a mistake.
The Minnesota Vikings' rookie linebacker was in man coverage on Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins on Tampa Bay's first play in overtime, and when the tight end leaked out toward the sideline, Barr was too far inside to prevent him from making the catch. It was a similar route to what the Buccaneers had run on Mike Glennon's go-ahead touchdown pass to Seferian-Jenkins with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, and after the Vikings rallied to tie the game at 13, the Buccaneers had gone right back at Barr.
"Initially, I was a little upset with him," Zimmer said. "He wasn't being [wide in coverage] with the tight end enough, and he let him catch the ball. But now that it's over, I'm glad he did."
The game ended on that play because of what Barr did after he got beat. He put his right hand on Seferian-Jenkins' back, used his left hand to rip the ball out of the tight end's grasp, retrieved it from the turf and raced 27 yards for a game-winning touchdown that ended a three-game skid for the Vikings and served as another reminder of what a force the ninth overall pick in the draft already is, even if he doesn't have all the rough edges of his game smoothed out yet.
When he does? Barr stands a chance to be an absolute terror. He has recovered three fumbles in the last two weeks, and he recorded his third sack of the season to go along with eight tackles. He's just three years removed from playing running back at UCLA and is learning his responsibilities in a 4-3 defense after mostly rushing the passer as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme with the Bruins. He wasn't able to start his career in Minnesota until a month after the draft, thanks to UCLA's quarters system that had Barr reviewing practice film with linebackers coach Adam Zimmer over Skype from thousands of miles away. But veterans in the Vikings' locker room raved about how quickly Barr has come to understand his assignments, and the play he made on Sunday showed the instincts of a player several years his senior.
"He knew he had help coming [in safety Harrison Smith]. You could see him," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He knew the carrier was going to go down. I don't think he was concerned about that. He just made the play; it was exactly how you'd draw it up. Sometimes it's hard to get in there, but sometimes your hand just falls right."
Barr said he's getting more comfortable understanding concepts and routes as he drops back into coverage, though he might have more work to do there than he does against the run or rushing the passer. The Vikings are able to play with him learning on the fly, though, because of how much he already understands and how ferocious he already can be.
"His first time he came into practice, he knew all his assignments," Smith said. "He wasn't looking around all over the place, which is hard as a rookie. It's hard to come in and know what to do, and line up in the right spot, even. But the day he got here, he was doing things right. He's just getting better and better. ... His upside is as high as you can go."