Defensive Line Rotation Up In The Air

The Vikings' rotation along the defensive line will be changing with the season-ending injury to Kenechi Udeze, and that means modified roles for Spencer Johnson, Erasmus James and Lance Johnstone. See what the players have to say about the changes.

The gloom-and-doom news Wednesday that starting defensive end Kenechi Udeze would be out for the season was greeted with at least a glimmer of good news when injured pass-rushing specialist Lance Johnstone confirmed he expects to play next weekend when the Vikings are at Chicago.

Johnstone suffered a partially torn right pectoral muscle Sept. 25 against New Orleans, then missed the Atlanta game last weekend. Since the Vikings have a bye this weekend, Johnstone figures he should be ready Oct. 16 for their game against the Bears.

"I'm right on schedule for Chicago," Johnstone said. "I'm feeling good."

News of Johnstone's return is timely for the Vikings, who learned earlier this week they will be without their 2004 No. 1 pick for the rest of the season. Udeze suffered damage to the meniscus in his knee against New Orleans. He underwent surgery on the knee and it was ruled he would be out for the season.

Udeze, who some coaches earlier this season said was off to a good start, had five tackles and a sack in three games before getting hurt.

"Kenechi really played well the first three games. It was unfortunate with the injury," assistant defensive line coach Jim Panagos said. "We were really excited about him and the progress he made from minicamps on."

Head coach Mike Tice said Udeze was really starting to play like a first-round draft pick.

With Udeze sidelined last week against Atlanta, Spencer Johnson filled in at left end and recorded five tackles. In limited time, Johnson, a second-year undrafted free agent, has nine tackles this season. If healthy enough to play, Johnson is expected to continue to fill in for Udeze at left end while second-round draft pick Erasmus James should play in nickel and dime situations. Johnson sprained his right MCL Sunday and said he would be fine. Tice wasn't so sure.

Johnson started nine games last season for the Vikings, including both playoff games. During the regular season, he averaged almost eight tackles per start and ranked third among Vikings linemen with 54 tackles.

"Unfortunately, people do get hurt and the next man is called on," Johnson said. "I'm fortunate enough to be the second man called on two years in a row. It's my job to step in and continue to contribute at defensive end and defensive tackle, nose guard … whatever it is."

Johnson's versatility along the line has been an asset for the Vikings.

"Spencer Johnson is playing all four positions along our line," Panagos said. "With Spencer, you know you'll get a player who can play all four spots. He's very valuable and the season's a long year and we know he is very, very versatile. He can do a lot of things for us."

James is expected to see more playing time, too, now that Udeze's out. James played in most passing situations last week against Atlanta, but didn't make a tackle.

Since one-quarter of the season is complete, it's too early to get an accurate read on James' potential, Johnstone said.

"He's coming along," Johnstone said. "A rookie's a rookie. There's a lot of stuff you can tell him and try to get him ready for, but unless he does it there is really no way to get experience. I think the more he plays the better he's going to get."

Panagos agrees.

"As each week goes on, the performance gets better and better and better," Panagos said. "As he gets experience, you'll see him getting better and better. As a defensive lineman it takes time. It's a strength thing, schemes are different, and it takes time to mature… It's a long process for young defensive linemen."

With Udeze out for the season, the long process might be sped up for James, who has made one tackle in two games on the Vikings' active roster. Then again, if James is unable to perform at the level Vikings coaches expect, Johnson might be called upon to play during passing situations as well.

Regardless of where he is along defensive line, Johnson welcomes more playing time.

"You have more reads out on the ends," Johnson said. "You have to worry about boot-legs and different types of blocks. … There's a little more thinking (at end), but at the same time it's still playing defensive line."

the combinations are many: If Johnson can play in Chicago, he will likely start at left end. If not, Darrion Scott might move from right end to left end, with Johnstone and James handling the right side.

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