When a player makes his first NFL start, there is typically a flood of emotions that go through his mind. Erin Henderson is no different. After spending three years as a special-teams contributor, Henderson will be making his starting debut against the San Diego Chargers Sunday. However, the reality of his situation is that the Chargers could try to alter their formations to get Henderson matched up against Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates instead of Chad Greenway.
Any time somebody new comes into a defensive lineup, opposing offenses target them. Ask Cedric Griffin or Chris Cook. When they made their first starts, they may as well have had a bull's eye painted on their uniforms. They were targeted early and often and quarterbacks audibled out of called plays to go after them. Given the talent of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers are certain to go after Henderson in the short passing game, especially considering the impact Gates has on the Chargers offense.
Perhaps no tight end in the modern history of the NFL has been as big an offensive focal point as Gates has been with the Chargers. From 2004-09, he never caught fewer than 60 passes and had 75 or more receptions in four of those six years. He never gained less than 700 yards, topping 900 yards in five of six years, including two seasons with 1,100 or more yards. But, perhaps most disconcerting to defensive coordinators is his touchdown totals, which from 2004-09 they were 13-10-9-9-8-8 – by far the most of any tight end in the league. What more? In less than 10 full games last year, he had 50 catches for 782 yards and 10 touchdowns. Had he stayed healthy and kept up that pace, he would have caught 80 passes for 1,250 yards and 16 touchdowns – a pace that would have been a record-setting year in both yards and touchdowns.
Gates lines up all over the field, and when the Chargers see a potential mismatch, they move Gates to that area and, more times than not, get him the ball. With veteran Chad Greenway the strongside linebacker that usually covers tight ends, the Chargers can put Gates in motion in an attempt to isolate him against the inexperienced Vikings linebacker. Few offenses use the tight end as much as the Chargers do and, if they smell a mismatch – even if doesn't create a big play down the field – they will pick on Henderson to move the chains and keep drives alive. They won't stop until Henderson proves he can stop them and, if he doesn't, it won't be shocking to see Gates catch 10 passes.
If the Vikings are to pull off an upset victory against the Chargers, it is going to take a big effort from a lot of players. Antoine Winfield and Griffin will have to blanket their wide receivers. Jared Allen will have to create a pass rush. Greenway and E.J. Henderson will have to stuff the running lanes. Erin Henderson will likely get targeted by Rivers and the Chargers' offensive brain trust. It will be his job to neutralize Gates, something veterans with a wealth of experience have struggled to do.
If Gates is able to get matched up with Henderson one-on-one and exploit his inexperience, San Diego may be all but impossible to stop, making this the Week 1 Matchup to Watch.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Henderson vs. Pro Bowler
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