James To Get His Opportunity

Defensive end Erasmus James will be playing more of a role against Atlanta for a few reasons. Plus, how will the injuries affect the Vikings' run defense and the philosophy Sam Cowart has in stopping the Falcons?

Defensive end Erasmus James' rookie season has gotten off to a slow start. First, he missed more than a week of training camp because of a contract holdout. Then he was fighting a virus that weakened him.

But now, come this Sunday, the explosive rookie out of Wisconsin is expected to see his biggest role of the season.

Part of that is due to injuries along the defensive line. Part of that is due to James' progress.

"I think he's really starting to come on. He is practicing faster. He seems to be walking around with good body language and a smile on his face," head coach Mike Tice said. "I think he is starting to get his legs underneath him. Hopefully this will be a game, like Troy Williamson last week, (James) will do some things for us and make some plays.

"He is a fast athlete, explosive athlete. When he knows what he's doing and he can play with that speed and athleticism, he'll make plays – he'll make a lot of plays."

Defensive ends Kenechi Udeze and Lance Johnstone are both struggling with injuries this week. While James might not start, he will have a bigger role, and his quickness could be an asset while trying to contain Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.

"I just have to be a little more aware of what is going on. I can't just come off the edge reckless," James said of defending Vick. "I have to come off looking for a lot of things because you could get anything anytime. One minute he's there, one minute he's not.

"What we want to do is get him boxed up, get him a little reckless, trying to get him to do too many things at once. When he does that, he kind of gets himself in trouble and doesn't make as many plays."

James has admitted throughout the summer and into the preseason that he wants to become a run-defending end, and that will be especially important against the Falcons, who average more net yards running (183.7) than passing (131.3).

A bigger defensive front, especially on first and second down, might help the Vikings' efforts, so Spencer Johnson, who played mainly under tackle last season, and Darrion Scott, another utility lineman who can play inside or outside, likely will be the starting defensive ends, especially if Udeze isn't active.

James said he is fully recovered from a virus earlier this month that caused headaches, swollen lymph nodes and sensitive skin. It lasted about 2-1/2 weeks.

He will have to be at his best in his first action against Vick in Atlanta, where James has a lot of family and would like to put on a good showing for them.

And yet …

"You definitely have to hold back on how aggressive you are, let (Vick) try to make too many plays and make him start thinking instead of you thinking. When you start thinking, that's when you start messing up," James said.

Johnstone was back at Winter Park Thursday after visiting Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion on an injured shoulder, a strained tendon near the pectoral muscle.

"At first we were scared that it was torn from the bone," Johnstone said. "Hearing that it wasn't and it's just a matter of getting strength back was good news."

Tice said Johnstone is more likely to play than Udeze, but Johnstone didn't sound like he was counting on playing.

"After the bye, it's three weeks (of rest), so that should be enough time," he said.

He may play with a harness in his next action, but he said the injury will not require surgery now or in the future.

DEFENDING THE RUN

Stopping Atlanta's rushing attack of Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett won't be the responsibility of the defensive ends as much as it will fall on the interior of the defense.

"It puts extra pressure on the inside players and the back-side linebacker. The cutback or downhill zone play that normally cuts behind the front side players and they actually don't even block the front-side safety because he is outside the lane," Tice said of the Falcons attack. "They'll stick it, get everybody running, plant and then come in behind it. The key guys are the backside down linemen and the backside linebackers. Those are the key guys to stop this zone play."

Dunn leads the way with 52 rushes for 268 yards, Vick is next with 28 carries for 175 and Duckett has 24 for 108. No other Falcon has rushed the ball.

Middle linebacker Sam Cowart said there is nothing fancy about the Falcons' success on the ground.

"They do what they do better than what you're going to do to stop them – that's' their philosophy" Cowart said. "They're not going to change or confuse this guy … they're going to line up and do what they do. It's fairly simple, and they're not going to hide. Just like the Bengals."

Cowart said defending it is a matter of simply knowing the down-and-distance, what personnel the Falcons have on the field and what they like to do in those situations.

"You've just got to go out and stop their playmakers and make the other guys beat you," Cowart said. "You know 7 (Vick), 28 (Dunn), 83 (tight end Alge Crumpler) are the top guys. Third down, they like (wide receiver Brian) Finneran."

Cowart said the Vikings defense will have to jam Crumpler at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of his routes, saying that spending time hitting him at the line of scrimmage won't hinder them from getting to Vick because the quarterback either comes to the defender or else that defender doesn't stand much of a chance chasing him down.

Cowart also said putting a spy on Vick would only hurt the defense in other aspects. Stopping Vick's scrambling ability is an overall team effort.

"You can spy him, but it's going to put stress everywhere else," Cowart said. "You're losing an extra cover guy or you're losing an extra guy in run support."

NOTES

  • Tice said the biggest issue with the Falcons' running game is the amount of explosive plays – rushes over 12 yards – that they have been able to get.

  • The Vikings were able to practice outdoors Thursday after spending Wednesday indoors due to rain and wet field conditions. That is especially notable this week with all the injuries because the extra repetitions for the healthy players indoors puts more strain on their joints.

  • Michael Bennett will be used more on special teams, but it will be in a blocking role on punt and kick return, not as the return man.

  • Tice on the overall injury situation: "Injury-wise, we have a few guys that look a little shaky as far as being able to contribute this Sunday. Obviously Nate Burleson (knee) is out. Willie (Offord, knee) has been put on injured reserve. Kenechi Udeze (knee) took a little step backwards. Lance Johnstone's (shoulder) injury is not as serious as we had originally thought, but he will be a little questionable as the week progresses. Darren Sharper (knee) is making strides but he will be a game-time decision. Moe Williams is making strides and he will be a game-time decision. Brian Williams (knee) is out so we have some other guys that have to step up and play at a winning level.

    Neither Johnstone nor Udeze practiced Thursday.

    E.J. Henderson is expected to play after suffering a high ankle sprain in Cincinnati.

    Sharper was at practice but wasn't participating in full-team drills.




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