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E.J. Henderson has been one of our favorite Vikings here at DN since the early days of the site, and when he suffered his broken femur last season against Arizona, we hoped for the best while fearing the worst. Many thought that his career as a Minnesota Viking had come to a premature end. However, he's been going through drills at the mini-camp practices in recent days, and is optimistic about being back for the season opener on 9 September against New Orleans.
When Henderson went down last year, in stepped Jasper Brinkley, a fifth-round selection out of South Carolina in the 2009 draft. Many thought that the team was crazy to plug someone so untested into one of the defense's most important positions in the middle of a playoff chase, but the Vikings really didn't have many other options at that point. Today we're going to take a look at exactly how big a difference the switch at middle linebacker made, and what the Vikings might have in store in the likely event that E.J. Henderson is not ready to start the season in the middle of this defense.
E.J. Henderson started twelve games at MLB for the Vikings in 2009. Jasper Brinkley started six, including the Vikings' two post-season games. Here's a breakdown of how the Vikings fared in those games:
|Henderson starting||Brinkley Starting|
|Rush Yards Allowed/Game||84.3||90.5|
|Pass Yards Allowed/Game||227.2||185.5|
|Total Yards Allowed/Game||311.5||276|
The points/game stat, obviously the most important one, is relatively similar regardless of who's starting at linebacker, and so are the rush yards allowed/game. As long as Pat Williams and Kevin Williams are in the middle of the Minnesota defense, this team is going to stop the run regardless of who's back there at middle linebacker. But the pass yards allowed/game stat is interesting to me. Yes, the Vikings played some teams that weren't exactly proficient at throwing the ball when Brinkley was the starter, but that's somewhat balanced out by the fact that the Vikings' two playoff games with Brinkley in the middle of the defense.
Those games came against the Dallas Cowboys, who had the sixth most prolific passing offense in the NFL in 2009, averaging 267.9 yards/game, and the New Orleans Saints, who ranked fourth at 272.2 yards/game. In those two playoff games, the Vikings held Tony Romo and the Cowboys to 156 passing yards, and held Drew Brees and the Saints to 189, both significantly lower than their season averages. Now, I haven't broken down how much time the Vikings spent in the nickel or dime packages in either of those games, but it sort of appears to me that the more time Jasper Brinkley spent in the middle of the Vikings defense, the more comfortable he got, and the better Minnesota's defense got against the pass as a result.
Don't get me wrong. . .I still love me some E.J. Henderson and everything, and would love to see him back in the middle of the Minnesota defense in 2010 after coming back from one of the more gruesome injuries I've been witness to. But if he does come back, he a) might not be at full speed or be the same E.J., and b) is going to be 30 years old and might be starting to slow down regardless.
Fortunately, it looks like we may have a pretty good replacement for him in-house already in the person of Jasper Brinkley. If the Vikings are preparing for Brinkley to start the season at MLB for them, he should already be comfortable enough with the defense to be able to go all-out from the beginning of the year, and we won't see any drop off from the Vikings' defense we saw for much of 2009.