Assuming Pat and Kevin Williams are able to succeed in their legal battle and get their four-game suspensions overturned, the Vikings will have the vast majority of their regular starters from 2008 returning to open the 2010 season.
E.J. Henderson was missed for most of the year due to injury, but he is returning to his familiar role at middle linebacker. Tyrell Johnson is the only defensive player expected to start in 2009 that wasn't pegged as a starter heading into training camp last year.
As it turned out, Johnson ended up starting the first seven games last year after Madieu Williams suffered a neck injury early in training camp. That quick immersion into the defense is expected to help the second-year safety this year as he takes over for the departed Darren Sharper, who accepted a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints.
"He'd be so much farther behind if he hadn't gotten that game experience, so that was a big plus for him, and it's going to pay dividends for us when the season begins," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of Johnson.
This year, however, Johnson will be starting alongside Williams instead of Sharper. That's much of the reason that head coach Brad Childress invited Williams to attend the Vikings' first week of voluntary organized team activities when many of the veterans weren't asked to participate. Building that backfield chemistry early should help when the season rolls around and the defense has to make more adjustments on the fly.
So far, the transition has been smooth, Johnson said.
"It's gone good. Me and Madieu get along very well out there," Johnson said. "Me and Darren did also, but it's just two different people, two different personalities, two different games, so you just have adjust from one to the other."
"Darren was more like a lurker. Madieu is a little bit faster. Quick. Can play receivers man to man, just as well as I can. Me and Madieu are kind of interchangeable. Darren is more a lurker, a zone-type player."
The Vikings play quite a bit of zone defense and are usually labeled as a Tampa-2 defense, but Sharper wasn't always happy with the way he was used in Minnesota's scheme, feeling like his ability to go after the football for interceptions was too confined at times.
Johnson said he can't worry about the differences between playing next to Williams or Sharper.
"Both are aggressive. All I can do is go out there and handle my position. I can't worry about the other safety because Madieu does a great job coming down on the run and the pass and I do a great job as well. Like I said, we're interchangeable," he said.
Communication will be the key. Whereas Sharper was responsible for many of the adjustments in the defensive backfield in years past, that responsibility is expected to fall mainly on Williams, and getting him and Johnson on the same page of the playbook during the offseason is instrumental to regular-season success.
"It's something that is so important to our defense because we count on those guys to be able to communicate and get information to our corners and also help our linebackers with some information," Frazier said. "So to get those two working together is extremely important. It takes a lot of time and a lot of repetition, so to get Madieu here for those first four (OTAs) was important just because of Tyrell and his experience level. We have a long way to go, but we have to get to a point where they're in sync."
Johnson said it doesn't take that long to adjust to the calls Williams makes, as opposed to the adjustments Sharper implemented.
"Not really because they put just as much responsibility on me, even when I was playing with Darren. Actually, I'm making a lot of the calls, just as well as Madieu is. So there's equal responsibility on the back end."
For Johnson, the key is the experience he gained in his rookie season. It's helping spark a confidence that lets him know he is up to the task athletically.
"Things aren't happening as fast as you think they are. A lot of times I would over-run a play or get too excited and miss a play just because I was playing too uptight," Johnson said. "That hasn't been the issue this year. I feel more composed. I feel more confident this year. I feel like I'm getting better."
Frazier doesn't seem to have any doubts that Williams' experience will help Johnson, just as Sharper did last year.
"(Williams) is the veteran guy back there now; he has to take over the leadership of our secondary," the coordinator said. "He's up to the task. He did a great job for us when he came back from his injury a year ago, and he'll be fine."
And his backfield mate, despite being only a second-year safety, is expected to be fine too.
Johnson taking lessons from 2008
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