Key matchup: Brinkley vs. the backs

Linebacker Jasper Brinkley will be getting his first extensive time on defense, and he'll be squaring off against two hard-nosed runners that have found new life with the Bengals.


There is always a certain amount of excitement when a player makes his NFL debut. His heart beats a little faster. Perhaps he has butterflies in his stomach. He is looking to make an impact and solidify his place in the starting lineup and prove he belongs. When the Vikings meet the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, rookie Jasper Brinkley will be making his first start at middle linebacker in relief of E.J. Henderson. He will face a difficult challenge with the Bengals' pair of running backs – Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson – making their ongoing battle throughout the day this week's key matchup.

When the Vikings drafted Brinkley in the fifth round of April's draft, he was known as a big hitter at South Carolina. He offered the promise of becoming a premier NFL linebacker, but his initial contribution to the Vikings was expected to be almost exclusively limited to special teams. That all changed when Henderson broke his left femur in the second half of last Sunday's game with Arizona. Brinkley is now being thrust front and center – literally – in the Vikings defense and asked to continue the trend of being one of if not the best run defenses in the league.

His first challenge will be a difficult test. After years of mediocrity, the Bengals have become one of the powerhouse teams in the AFC. Their formula for success has been one that has been the blueprint of many organizations (including the Vikings) for decades – have a tough, opportunistic defense and a strong rush offense. The Bengals have had neither in previous years. For most of the decade, the running game was in the hands of Rudi Johnson, a plodding runner who was a workhorse, but typically only good for four or five yards a carry. In you needed four yards, he got you four yards. In you needed seven yards, he got you four yards. It was his M.O. But, after several seasons of pounding, his effectiveness waned and the Bengals went looking for replacements – with little success.

They tried through the draft, taking Chris Perry in the first round in 2004 and Kenny Irons in the second round in 2007, but neither of them panned out. Third-down back Kenny Watson was given a chance to start, but he failed to hold up under the strain of being a featured back. It was in near desperation that the Bengals signed Benson, a career underachiever with the Bears and a player with a penchant for getting into trouble with the law. After being unemployed for the first four weeks of the 2008 season, Benson was brought in by the Bengals with a contract that made him easily expendable if things didn't work out. Instead, he became the running back they had been searching for over the previous couple of years. In the 10 games he started, he rushed 200 times for 711 yards – gaining almost all of them by pounding the ball between the tackles.

For much of this season, Benson was at or near the top of the rushing charts until a knee injury slowed him down in November. With another former first-round pick (Larry Johnson) on the open market, the Bengals opted to take a gamble on him. Much like Benson, Johnson is a power runner whose bread and butter has been punishing defenders, not looking for the sidelines or trying to avoid contact. He, too, forced his way out of the team that drafted him on the first round for very similar reasons – butting heads with management and giving the organization a black eye. Brought in under almost identical circumstances as Benson, in his short stint with the Bengals, Johnson has made an immediate impact with his power running style.

With Benson expected back this week, the Bengals now have a tandem of power running backs that can execute their simple, yet effective game plan – pound the rock at opponents and wear them down over time. Brinkley's job will be as the first line of defense when either of them gets through the Vikings defensive line. Neither of them are fancy runners – they don't do a lot of east-west shuffling of their feet and bouncing runs to the outside. They run north-south almost exclusively.

It will be Brinkley's job to make sure that if either of them gets past the Williams Wall, they run into the Brinkley Truck and he stops them dead in their tracks. Although they have a potentially potent pass offense, the Bengals have built a 9-3 record primarily on the strength of their defense and a power running game that imposes its will on opponents. Their sweep of both the Ravens and Steelers speaks volumes to their success rate in that regard. Having a rookie making his first NFL start clearly has perked up the ears of the Bengals' offensive coaching staff, which likely senses weakness at the position. While Brinkley will be getting plenty of help from fellow linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber, it will be his job to clog the middle of the Vikings defense and prevent Benson or Johnson from getting on a roll that would lead to the Bengals getting in a rhythm and controlling the clock.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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