Notebook: LB concerns continue into game day

The Vikings remain thin with their linebacker depth, with three of them not practicing Friday and facing one of the league’s better all-around running backs. Plus, without Brandon Marshall for the Bears, the defensive plan could be different than it was in their Nov. 16 meeting between the teams.

The Minnesota Vikings linebacker corps remained without their top players on Friday as the team prepared for the season finale against the Chicago Bears.

Chad Greenway remained out of practice with a knee injury suffered against the Miami Dolphins last week and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Anthony Barr has been out for the last three games and was declared out for the rest of the season as he awaits surgery on his partially torn meniscus. In addition, Brandon Watts, who played his first six defensive snaps of the season before injuring his hamstring, also wasn’t practicing Friday and was declared out.

“(Greenway) probably could have practiced today but we didn’t want to aggravate it more,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Friday. “We’ll just see how it goes.”

In their places, Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole were getting the first-team nickel reps.

Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who is usually taken off the field for an extra defensive back when opponents use three wide receivers, says he has never seen the linebacker depth this low.

“We’re thin, man. We’re thin and it’s always the next man up in this league,” Brinkley said. “This is a brutal league, tough. It’s very rare that guys stay healthy all through 16 weeks. You always have nicks and bruises here and there, things you have to deal with. But I don’t think I’ve ever been around when it’s been like this.”

When Barr was injured, he was leading the team in tackles with 99, according to coaches film review. Greenway has led the team in tackles the last six seasons, but safety Harrison Smith currently has a one-tackle lead over Greenway, Smith with 116 and Greenway with 115.

The news looked a little more promising on offense, as tight end Kyle Rudolph (ankle) and receiver Jarius Wright (low back) returned to practice on a limited basis Friday after being out on Wednesday and Thursday.

Safety Robert Blanton (knee/ankle), G Charlie Johnson, WR Greg Jennings (hamstring), S Antone Exum (knee), RT Mike Harris (foot) and TE Chase Ford (foot), who were all limited on Wednesday and Thursday, were all full participants Friday and listed as probable.

The linebacker depth could be especially critical given that position’s usual responsibilities in defending running backs, both in the running game and passing game. Bears running back Matt Forte has 94 receptions this season, sixth-most in the NFL. If he catches eight or more passes this Sunday, he’ll break the all-time single-season record for receptions by a running back, held by Larry Centers, who had 101 catches for the Arizona Cardinals in 1995.

“It can be difficult,” Brinkley said. “Matt is a good running back, an outstanding running back. I think he’s underrated actually. He had great hands, can run the ball very well. It’s just one of those guys that’s a complete running back.”

The last time the Vikings faced the Bears, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery presented a tall task that the Vikings didn’t handle well. Jeffery had 11 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown and Brandon Marshall had seven catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns. Many of those catches came when they were matched up against Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson.

But Marshall was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 8, ending his season.

“My wife actually made a comment. She was like, ‘Yes, you don’t have to play him no more.’ I was like, ‘What? I want to play him.’ It’s cool, though. We’re excited for it and just ready to redeem ourselves, especially me,” Robinson said.

“… My wife is very outspoken … I told her to stop. She used to go on sites and refute things and say things, but I told her to stop. She’s very outspoken, but I love it.”

The 5-foot-10 Robinson might not have to face the 6-foot-3 Jeffery this time around, either. In the last two games, the Vikings have had 6-foot-1 cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadow the other team’s best big receiver and he’s been effective in that role. The Vikings will at least have that option against the Bears since Marshall, who is 6-foot-4, is out and Rhodes can concentrate on shadowing the Bears’ most effective tall receiver.

“But they still have plenty of weapons. (Matt) Forte is, I think, eight catches away from a record. They’ve got a bunch of good players,” Zimmer said. “(Martellus) Bennett is a good player, 17 (Alshon Jeffery). (Jay) Cutler still spins the ball good and moves around in the pocket with his feet, Pro Bowl offensive linemen.”

Marshall’s replacement, second-year pro Marquess Wilson, is also 6-foot-4, but he isn’t as accomplished as Marshall.

  • For the Bears, QB Jimmy Clausen (concussion), S Chris Conte (back) and K Robbie Gould (quad) have been ruled out. DE Jared Allen (ribs), CB Al Louis-Jean (hamstring), and DT Jeremiah Ratliff (knee) are questionable.

  • The Vikings practiced outside from Wednesday through Friday for the first time since their field heating system arrived, but Zimmer said he doesn’t expect to have the team’s Saturday walk-through outside.

  • The forecast calls for 1 to 3 inches of snow on Saturday, and by Sunday’s game the temperatures are expected to be in the mid-20s.

  • With the linebacker depth thin, the Vikings could promote one of their practice squad linebackers to the 53-man roster for Sunday. Josh Kaddu, the third-year pro out of Oregon, would be the likely replacement, but the Vikings also added rookie Justin Anderson to the practice squad this week.

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