Vikings-Chiefs Matchup to Watch

Chiefs running back Larry Johnson and Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson both have nice contract extensions in the bag, and they'll be hitting each other early and often Sunday as the strength of the Chiefs offense clashes with the strength of the Vikings defense.

E.J. Henderson vs. Larry Johnson
Few teams are as one-player dependent as the Kansas City Chiefs offense has been with its featured running back. For years, Priest Holmes was among the top runners in the NFL and, when he went down to injury, former first-round pick Larry Johnson stepped in and the Chiefs offense didn't miss a beat.

But not all has been peachy in Kansas City this year. Johnson, fearing he could be franchised and disposed of over the next two seasons, held out and was rewarded with a five-year, $43 million contract extension. But he has yet to look like the L.J. that set a record for rushing attempts last year with 416. The Chiefs are desperate at 0-2 and need a win badly. Translation? Johnson needs to have a big game for Kansas City to get in the win column and the Vikings' E.J. Henderson is going to be the player primarily responsible for stopping him – making L.J. and E.J. the Matchup to Watch this week.

The Chiefs have struggled in games against the Bears and Texans, scoring just one touchdown in eight quarters with Johnson being bottled up for just 98 yards on 26 carries. Both those numbers clearly have to change, but, for Johnson's sake, it may have to wait until next week, since the Vikings are acknowledged as one of the best run-stopping defenses in the league.

The similarities between Johnson and Henderson run deep. Both were taken much later on draft day than they thought they would be – Johnson late in the first round and Henderson early in the second round of the 2003 draft. Both also found themselves out of water early in their careers – Johnson mired behind Holmes for the first couple of years of his career and Henderson being shifted from middle linebacker to outside linebacker with regularity in the early stages of his career. Now both are unquestioned at their respective positions and both have long-term extensions in their hip pocket to provide some financial security.

But the similarities end there. Despite significant losses on the offensive line, the Chiefs' bread and butter on offense is to pound Johnson between the tackles. He is the type of back that seems to get stronger as he wears down a defense – typically gaining more yards on his second dozen carries than his first dozen carries in a game. Johnson has the strength to break arm tackles from defensive linemen locked up with the Chiefs O-line, so it will be dependent on Henderson to stand Johnson up when he hits a hole and keep the only real offensive threat the Chiefs bring to the table in check.

The Chiefs were forced to abandon the run with Johnson in Week 1 against Houston, running him just 10 times. Last week vs. the Bears, Johnson got 16 carries for just 55 yards, but the Chiefs seemed more committed to running L.J. at the Bears. This week, Johnson will be expected to get 25 carries or more – and most of those will be straight up the middle at Henderson. If he can lay a couple of big hits on Johnson early, the same hesitance he showed at times against the Bears will return. The motto may sound simple, but it's true – stop Johnson and you stop the Chiefs – making E.J. and L.J. this week's Matchup to Watch.


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