Leber The Lonely Linebacker?

In a way, linebacker Ben Leber is a victim of his own success. Leber is an integral part of the Vikings' smothering run defense, but that often leads to a nickel defense that means Leber heads to the sidelines. See the stats that support opponents' pass-happy attacks and what the sometimes sidelined linebacker has to say about the situation.

Want to get linebacker Ben Leber to shake his head and shrug his shoulders? Ask him one simple question – when an opponent goes to their multi-receiver packages, which linebacker comes out?

With a half-smile of resignation, Leber will say, "that would be me."

There have been a couple of by-products of the Vikings' continuing success against the run. First, teams all but abandon the run and come at the Vikings with four and five receivers on the field. Second, when that happens, Leber is replaced with a fifth defensive back and has to head to the sidelines.

"At times, it seems like the coaches are trying to find situations to get me back into the game," Leber said. "I understand the situation. At times it can be frustrating, although it hasn't been too bad this year. When you're in-and-out, in-and-out, it gets harder to get your rhythm of the game, but you have to play with what the personnel dictates."

Some point to the seventh game of the 2006 season for the swing in the way offenses have attacked the Vikings. At the time, the Vikings were 4-2 and hosting the New England Patriots on a Monday night. It was supposed to be a statement game. It was. However, it wasn't the statement the Vikings wanted to make.

Bill Belichick's game plan was to abandon the run in the first half. Tom Brady came out throwing. And throwing. And throwing. He amassed nearly 300 yards by halftime and the Patriots blew out the Vikings 31-7.

Other teams would follow. Over the next four games, Brett Favre threw 42 times, Joey Harrington threw 44 times and Matt Leinart threw 51 times against the Vikings defense. Over the final games, the song remained the same – Jon Kitna threw 41 times, Chad Pennington threw 39 times and Favre threw 50 passes in the rematch.

With so many pass plays, Leber's playing time was reduced and, at times, all but eliminated. Early in the 2007 season, Leber was part of a different linebacker corps. While Leber remained at his position, with Napoleon Harris gone, E.J. Henderson moved to middle linebacker and Chad Greenway got his chance to crack the starting lineup. The group has jelled quickly and Leber says the bond they have formed has translated beyond the field.

"All of us have become a pretty tight group," Leber said. "I hope it's pretty evident on the field that we feel very comfortable with each other because we really do. We communicate a lot and have a lot of fun together on and off the field."

While the communication is up, Leber's playing time is again the subject of schematic reduction. The Lions never had any intention of trying to establish the run in the Mike Martz offense, so they threw as often as possible when Jon Kitna was in the game. When the Chiefs discovered that even Larry Johnson couldn't make a significant dent in the Vikings run defense, they turned to the pass in the second half. In both instances, that decision sent Leber to the sideline. With a Packers team that has struggled with the run and has Favre (who averaged 46 passes a game in two wins last year), Leber could find himself on the sideline again – but isn't buying into the pass-happy Packer offense.

"It's an interesting game plan to get ready for," Leber said. "They're still the Green Bay Packers and I still feel that they want to come in here and dominate with the run game. That's their style. At the same time, they're smart and they see we've kind of been exploited through the air. We're going in to stop the run game first. The last thing you want is to bleed in the run game – that's when they've got you by the neck."

But, if the Packers can't get anything going on the ground like so many others that have preceded them, the Vikings will have succeeded in their first defensive goal. But it also means that Leber will heading to sidelines more often.

"My playing time is suffering, but I completely understand the reason for it," Leber said. "Hopefully we have packages (for Sunday's game) that can keep me in more on third downs. Otherwise, I'll just have to wait for my chances and be ready when they come."

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