Curing Confusion At Linebacker

With E.J. Henderson out of the lineup, the Vikings had to adjust a number of things on defense, even who was making the calls because, according to head coach Mike Tice, there was too much confusion. Tice also is adjusting how the defense prepares for games since they've gotten into two consecutive shootouts.

The carousel at linebacker continues to go around and around. The first thing that suffers when there is constant shuffling in the middle of the defense is communication. Especially when a rookie like Dontarrious Thomas temporarily fills in at middle linebacker (the Vikings prefer him on the weak side).

Moving Thomas to middle linebacker can cause confusion in the huddle. That's why the Vikings are happy to have E.J. Henderson back in practice this week. We'll let Tice explain:

"[With Henderson out] we had our strong linebacker calling defensive calls in the huddle because [Thomas] on game day would blank out," Tice said. "We couldn't get calls in because he'd bumble and stumble through some calls and then we were getting calls as they were coming up to the line of scrimmage. That causes anxiety and that causes guys to not have a chance to settle in."

The anxiety the defense felt shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Every time Keith Newman turns around, it seems, there is a different player next to him.

"Injuries are going to happen, it's part of the NFL," Newman said. "We're a young group with some veteran leadership from myself and [Chris] Claiborne. We just have to keep working at it and hopefully things fall in place."

Third-year player Raonall Smith agrees.

"It's a little musical chairs right now. You never know who's going to be up and who's going to be down," Smith said. "It's a matter of us stepping up and making plays and living up to our responsibilities."

If they're concerned, they're not showing it.

"Better things will come from our group," Newman said. "We're going to keep working at it because as a group we can be better, regardless of who's in there because of injuries or whatever."

Now here's a new problem: The Vikings defense is a victim of their counterparts on offense putting too many points on the board too early. At least that's the Vikings' latest concern.

"Getting out to big leads, you get a little lackadaisical," Smith said.

Against Houston, the Vikings jumped out to a 21-0 lead, then later were forced to win in overtime. Against New Orleans, the Vikings bolted out to a two-touchdown lead, only to have to battle to the end to hold on.

While the Vikings offense has been getting sent bouquets, the defense is receiving brickbats. Vikings coaches aren't shrugging the defensive struggles off, but publicly the coaching staff doesn't appear overly concerned.

"We have the talent," Tice said. "I think it's not as bad as it appears."

Tice's theory? Because the Vikings jump out to quick leads, opponents abandon their traditional game plans and begin to play out of desperation. The Vikings defense, which spends part of its week preparing how to stop an opposing running game, is forced to play pass defense the majority of the time.

"We practice to play a 0-0 game," Tice said. "We have a lot of run defenses in. We have a lot of eight-man box in. The problem is in the second quarter we have two-touchdown leads.

"I think the defensive coaches and players need to get the mentality to learn how to play and call the game with a two-touchdown lead and not get soft. We need to maintain aggressiveness with a two-touchdown lead."

That begins with defending the pass.

"Teams are dropping their game plans and they're just chucking," Tice said. "We have to practice that stuff … We have to adjust on the go because it's reality. The reality is our offensive is getting a lot of leads. We have to learn how to play with leads."

A good problem to have, Tice concedes, but a problem nevertheless.

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