As the Vikings enter the 2012 season, there are plenty of areas with more questions than answers and linebacker is one of them. Over the last two seasons, the Vikings have replaced longtime starters Ben Leber and E.J. Henderson and the unit has a vastly different look heading into this season than it has in previous years.
Chad Greenway is one of the few holdovers and has become the leader/mentor of the young linebacker corps. He believes there is a lot of progress that will need to be made at the linebacker position, but is convinced a lot can be accomplished by getting off to a fast start and there's no place like home to get the team headed in the right direction and finally burying the 2011 season and forgetting about it.
"We're looking forward to being home to start the season – that's awesome," Greenway said. "It's a huge advantage for us. We love playing at home. We want to get off on the right foot. We have a young squad here and it's really vital for us to get off to a good start. As leaders, we're trying to push them in the right direction."
Opponents may view the Vikings linebackers as a weakness of the defense that potentially can be exploited, but Greenway believes that the young linebackers like Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley are ready for their moment in the spotlight and will be much better as the season progresses.
"Like anything, it's going to be game experience," Greenway said. "I think our young guys have shown a tremendous amount of poise through the preseason just getting reps under their belt when they've been thrown in with the (first team). It has not changed their abilities. They haven't gotten rattled and the situation hasn't been too big for them. There's no (replacing) experience, but you've got to do it at some point."
What the Vikings lack in experience at key spots in the defense they make up for in youthful enthusiasm. Brinkley for one has been criticized for his lack of experience and injury history and many have speculated that the Vikings may be asking too much of him and the other young linebackers. Greenway disagrees, contending that youth will be served and that enthusiasm and athleticism can go a long way to improving the overall play of the defense.
"They want it so bad," Greenway said. "They want to be great. They want to have that big role. I'm so excited for Jasper to get to get (the pressure) off his back. Naturally, when you come off a guy like E.J., who has been as steady as anyone around here for so long, when you're changing a position like middle linebacker, it's like changing the quarterback in a lot of ways. I'm excited for him to kind of get that monkey off his back. I think he's going to do it right away and people are going to feel comfortable with where he is and who he is as the season goes on. We know what he's capable of and we're excited about that. He's just got to let it loose."
In the end, the improvement Greenway expects to see in the defense isn't the result of replacing veterans, it's more based on things like gap integrity and simply doing your own job within the defense. When he watched film of last year's games – a painful experience to say the least – what he saw wasn't a Vikings team that was dominated. Rather, it was a team that was beating itself more than being beaten by the other team.
"So many mistakes were made last year by not just being in the right places," Greenway said. "It wasn't about not physically being good enough, but just not being where you're supposed to be – something that takes no talent. Those mistakes, if we can make those right, if we stay healthy and make plays that come your way, it's just going to be about us doing our jobs, playing ball and limiting our mistakes."
While many see the young linebacker corps as a cause for concern, Greenway sees it as reason for optimism.
"These guys are going to do some great things," Greenway said. "They just need to get their opportunity to get out there and work together. I think once they get comfortable where they are and we get comfortable with them, good things are going to happen. We can't wait to get it started."
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.
Greenway: Young LBs ‘want it so bad'
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