While the Vikings await the fate of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who is one of the candidates for the St. Louis Rams' head-coaching job, several players are looking forward to the return of another key cog in their defense in 2009.
When middle linebacker E.J. Henderson dislocated toes in his left foot during the fourth game of the season, it caused a major reshuffling at the linebacker position. Henderson was placed on injured reserve, David Herron started three games, Napoleon Harris was acquired and filled in the remainder at middle linebacker, and full-time starters Ben Leber and Chad Greenway were left to deal with the instability in the middle.
Even so, the defense finished first in the NFL against the rush for the a record third time in a row, leaving players looking forward to Henderson's return next year and pondering how it might be even better.
"You think about those things, but in this game injuries happen. It just wasn't on our side this year. E.J. got hurt. Pat (Williams) went down. A lot of guys were banged up," Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield said, admitting that the defense would be better in 2009 when Henderson returns. "Without a doubt. He's a great player, especially behind Pat and Kevin (Williams). He gets freedom to roam, make plays. He's a playmaker."
In the three-plus games Henderson did play, he made 36 tackles, forced and recovered a fumble, had a sack, four tackles-for-loss and two passes defensed. Henderson had been used to leading the team in tackles – he did that in 2004 and 2006 – but in 2007 he set a career high with 155 tackles. He was about on pace for that total again in 2008 before his toes displaced him to injured reserve.
After the Vikings signed Napoleon Harris, who had been recently released from the Kansas City Chiefs, he started five of the final nine games. Unlike Henderson, however, Harris didn't play in the Vikings' nickel defense, as Leber took over that role alongside Greenway.
The effects were obvious. Greenway became more of a playmaker with 149 tackles and Leber was on the field more often, making 88 tackles, equal the number he had in 2007. However, taking Harris' average of 4.3 tackles per game in the last nine contests, he would have had only 69 tackles for the season, far less than Henderson's 155 from 2007.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said it took him some time to settle into what Harris could and couldn't do well compared to Henderson.
"Early on it was an issue for me. When we played Tennessee and E.J. had to sit out that first series, it was tough. I'm scrambling a little bit with what I can and can't do at the time with David Herron, who was the starter at the moment," Frazier said last month. "He had never played in a National Football League game, in the regular season, at the Mike linebacker position. It was a little bit of a challenge, but as time has gone on and Napoleon comes in, we get him in there in the Chicago game for the first time. It was an adjustment. … There are still some things that you have to be conscious of. E.J. is such a great player that sometimes it didn't matter what you did, he was going to make it right. He's a rare, rare player, so when you replace him you know there's going to be some dropoff. You just hope it's not a dramatic dropoff."
While Harris could make some of the routine plays, Frazier admitted that Henderson had more ability to make the "splash" plays.
"(Napoleon) can make those routine plays that you look for. What you get with E.J., the splash plays and some of the things he does, if you're the opposing team you're saying, ‘Wow, how did he make that play?' That kind of gets everyone juiced up and going," Frazier said. "What you need is that guy who can make that routine play that everybody is confident that he is where he should be. When he has a chance to play he can make that play. Napoleon has done that for us."
But the return of Henderson is one aspect the Vikings coaches can look forward to this offseason and into the 2009 campaign. So far, so good on Henderson's recovery.
"He's doing well. He's in here almost every day working on the treadmill. He's ambulatory," Childress said after the season. "He came in and talked about the (playoff) game and he's gotten over the fact that he wasn't part of that game. He's right on track."
That should help a Vikings defense that still finished sixth in overall offense – first against the run and 18th against the pass.
Henderson's return should help
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