Henderson Showcases New Tampa-2 Skills

E.J. Henderson showcased a new set of skills for the Vikings' version of the Tampa-2 – or at least the linebacker was used more aggressively in the team's season opener than they used Napoleon Harris last year.

If stats are for losers, then you be the one to tell E.J. Henderson he's a loser after his play on Sunday against the Falcons registered with several defensive categories.

The Vikings' middle linebacker registered one sack, two quarterback hurries, two tackles-for-loss and 10 tackles. Initially, Henderson was credited with two sacks, but the coaches film review credited one of them to defensive tackle Kevin Williams.

But, no matter how many statistics Henderson is credited with, his aggressiveness and how the Vikings used him in his first regular-season game replacing Napoleon Harris showed some differences – namely, they like using Henderson to blitz.

"That blitz has been in this scheme of defense for a long time. I think it was very good execution by the defensive linemen as well as the other linebackers who were involved, and then you have a superior athlete in a guy like E.J." head coach Brad Childress said. "If you remember back in the Seattle (preseason) game, he was on (Matt) Hasselbeck twice with that same type of blitz and was harassing the quarterback. He's quick enough to be able to step around, step through some trash, beat a running back's block, and explosive enough to get there to the quarterback."

Last year's middle linebacker, Napoleon Harris, registered 2.5 sacks, seven tackles-for-loss and nine quarterback hurries. But Henderson seemed to take his initial performance as the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 defense in stride.

"That's just how the ball rolls. A lot of calls I ended up running the blitz and it worked out because a lot of the protections that they had we saw on tape, so it was off their protection," he said. "I think it was just that (Sunday) the schemes that they had, the calls that we had, they matched. The front did a good job and they kind of forgot about us."

Linebacker Ben Leber said it might be a bit early to start making sweeping judgments about Henderson vs. Harris at middle linebacker.

"You can't really compare one game to the whole season," said Leber, the team's strongside linebacker. "I think (Henderson) is definitely making much more of the situation than maybe last year. … He disguised everything well. He sat back and let everything develop in front of him, hit the holes where he is supposed to and had some great sacks."

With Leslie Frazier replacing Mike Tomlin as the defensive coordinator, defensive end Kenechi Udeze said pressure up the middle has been practiced early and Sunday was just an opportunity to put that practice into action.

"It's just something that we started doing from day one and everybody just starting gravitating toward and started applying it to the game," Udeze said.

"We played a lot more Cover-2 last year," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Just watching film of this game, E.J. is very aggressive. He plays the run very well – I haven't seen a linebacker that plays up there like him. I guess we're just playing to his strengths."

On at least one of his blitzes, Henderson redirected his route from the quarterback to running back Warrick Dunn after he received the handoff and dropped him for a 5-yard loss. It came on a first-quarter play that immediately followed another blitz in which Henderson and Williams were initially credited with sharing a sack of Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington.

The fact that is was Harrington directing the opposing offense also had something to do with the Vikings' aggressiveness on defense.

"Harrington was one of those guys we knew if we could get on him early, put some hits on him and kind of rattle his brain a little bit, he doesn't know where the blitzes are coming from, it makes our disguises a little bit better," Leber said.

But Henderson's aggressiveness from the middle linebacker spot – a position usually known for dropping into a deep zone in pass coverage – brought up the question of semantics. Can this defense even be labeled a Tampa-2 scheme if Henderson is blitzing so often?

"I guess you can call it an aggressive Tampa-2. We still call him the Mike linebacker and will drop him back in coverage and be the deepest guy in certain situations. Others, he's just like a linebacker that we all have – blitz him if we have to," Leber said.

Whether they had to or not, Henderson's aggressive and successful style was certainly on display.

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