MINNEAPOLIS - E.J. Henderson rode through the doors of the Vikings' indoor practice facility Wednesday afternoon at Winter Park on his scooter, ready to watch practice. Three weeks after breaking his left femur, Henderson is at least able to lend encouragement to his teammates.
That is still far from ideal for the player linebacker Ben Leber calls the "heart and soul" of the Vikings' defense. Since Henderson was injured in the fourth quarter of the Vikings' loss on Dec. 6 in Arizona, they have lost two of three with rookie Jasper Brinkley playing middle linebacker in the base defense.
This is not an attempt to pin the blame on Brinkley for losses at Carolina and Chicago. But the fifth-round pick from South Carolina has been placed in a difficult situation.
"Expectations are high when you step in for a guy the caliber of an E.J. Henderson," Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said.
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The main issue for Brinkley has been adjusting to his role in the passing game. Brinkley, 6-foot-1 and 252 pounds, is sound against the run and played in schemes in college that had similarities to what he is doing now. He looked solid in his first start in the Vikings' victory against Cincinnati on Dec. 13, but that was in part because the Bengals are a run-first offense.
It has become clear in recent weeks that Brinkley is adjusting to dropping into pass coverage - a crucial part of the middle linebacker's job in the Tampa-2 defense and something Brinkley did not do at South Carolina. Brinkley is not on the field for many passing downs because the Vikings move Leber to middle linebacker in their nickel package.
Interestingly, Brinkley said this week he does not feel as if teams are targeting him all that often through the air.
"I've been getting the same looks week in and week out," he said. "I haven't really been hit with a play yet that I feel that they've really tried to test me on. I always have that thought in the back of my mind that they are going to try to test me down the middle. But I just haven't gotten that play yet."
The Bears certainly seemed to go at Brinkley during their 36-30 overtime victory Monday night against the Vikings. Quarterback Jay Cutler targeted tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen 13 times and completed eight of those passes. Brinkley was called for interference on Olsen in the third quarter on a play that moved the ball to the Vikings 4. The Bears scored two plays later. It would not be surprising to see the New York Giants test Brinkley on Sunday.
"You would expect that," Frazier said of the fact Brinkley is better against the run than the pass. "That was his forte when we drafted him, and he's an excellent run defender. He's done a good job in the run game. He'll get up to speed in the pass game as well. It's just going to take a little time. He's got to be able to see certain looks. He's a rookie. There's a lot of things he has to see playing that middle linebacker position."
Brinkley also is responsible for making the defensive calls and getting his teammates set. He said none of the challenges he has faced have shaken his confidence.
The Vikings also have no intention of causing Brinkley to question himself. Frazier said the Vikings will not consider moving Leber to the middle in all situations.
"This is what we drafted Jasper for," Frazier said. "There are going to be some moments where he's not quite where you need him to be. It's not ideal. But the best combination for us right now is Jasper, Chad (Greenway) and Ben. That's our best combination. We just have to make it work. He's playing run defense well, and we'll continue to have him look at tape and learn about some of the things people try and do in the pass game to help him. He's going to get better at it."