In 2007, the Minnesota Vikings faced a cross-road at linebacker. Confronted with the prospect of losing free-agent Napoleon Harris--a modest player by most standards, but, by far, the best middle linebacker on the squad, the team made a decision to allow half of their bounty in the Randy Moss trade to walk and to replace Harris with outside linebacker E.J. Henderson.
That decision was particularly precarious not only because the Vikings had no clear replacement for Henderson at outside linebacker, but also because Henderson had excelled at outside linebacker after a brief, utterly forgettable previous run at middle linebacker.
After a few missteps, however, Henderson became a surprising revelation at middle linebacker, solidifying the position until his injury in 2008.
The Vikings were unable to find a suitable fill-in for Henderson last season, and, with the linebacker again on IR this year, the team finds itself in a similar predicament. Rookie Jasper Brinkley, though certainly as aggressive as any Vikings' defender, clearly lacks the knowledge to play middle linebacker at the present time.
On Monday night, the Chicago Bears routinely took advantage of Brinkley's presence.
While Brinkley optimistically, if not naively, maintains that the Bears did not exploit his inexperience, if it was not inexperience that they were exploiting it was his outright inability. As middle linebacker, Brinkley is responsible for covering the tight end. Against Minnesota, Chicago threw to tight ends thirteen times, completing eight of those passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns--78 yards and 2 touchdowns more than they managed one week earlier in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Desmond Clark had five of those receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown, by far the most productive outing of a season in which he has produced but 19 receptions and one touchdown.
The Vikings can stick their heads in the sand and attempt to convince themselves that Brinkley is capable of handling the middle linebacker duties in 2009, but the game film and results do not lie in this case. Clearly, the Vikings are in need of a change in their linebacking corps.
What's mystifying about the Brinkley situation is not that a rookie would underwhelm as the playcaller on defense, but that the have Vikings opted to go with Brinkley over other more viable options. Several players on the current roster have both more experience in the NFL and at middle linebacker and have demonstrated at least the prospect of an ability to play the position.
Among the viable alternatives to replace Brinkley are Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, and Heath Farwell. Should the Vikings use either Greenway or Leber at middle linebacker, that would open the door for either Farwell or Erin Henderson to fill the void on the edge. Surely, those options are preferable to the current vacuum in the linebacking corps.
If those options do not suit the Vikings' tastes, they always have the option of playing in nickel formation--something that their poor secondary play likely will require anyway. That would mean needing to identify only two capable linebackers and playing without a middle linebacker. At this point, Greenway and Farwell might be the two top prospects in such an alignment, with Leber spelling either.
Of course the nickel package presents its own dilemma for a team suddenly utterly unable to stop the passing game. Antoine Winfield is recalling the worst of the Waswa Serwanga era, unable to pivot on what assuredly is a still-injured ankle, and the safeties are playing like safeties have always played in this overly soft version of the cover-two defense.
One solution is to insert Karl Paymah into the lineup for Winfield and to use Benny Sapp in the nickel. Another is to use rookie Asher Allen in place of Winfield and Paymah in the nickel and to move Sapp to safety in place of disappointing second-year player Tyrell Johnson.
While the Vikings have personnel issues that they need to address on defense, they also have glaring personnel issues on offense. Assuming that Ryan Cook cannot be converted to a tight-end and line up on either side of the line and that the Vikings will persist in their refusal to use Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson in the same backfield, there is one notable move that the Vikings clearly need to make sooner rather than later.
Whether the result of injury, inability, or indifference, it is clear that Bernard Berrian is on a regression curve from which he is unlikely to rebound in time to help the team this season. Despite being targeted 23 times and catching 15 passes over the past four games, Berrian has a paltry 152 receiving yards and zero touchdowns to show for his efforts. That's not what the Vikings had in mind when they signed Berrian as a deep-threat option two seasons ago, nor what they expected following the addition of Favre to the offense. It is, however, what the Vikings currently have. And it merits a change.
The Vikings are not without options at receiver, but they must make use of those options if they are to have any meaning. On Monday, the Vikings routinely refused to employ Percy Harvin in the offensive game plan until it was too late. Harvin, clearly the most dangerous receiving threat on the team, finished the game with four receptions for 40 yards, having been targeted eight times--all in the second half of the game.
Using the two-tight end set to protect McKinnie and Loadholt would leave the Vikings with one running back and two receivers. Those two receivers should be Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, not Rice and Berrian. In addition to the threat that Harvin provides, in a two-receiver set, Berrian and Rice merely congest the playing field rather than spread the defense. Gaining virtually all of his yards on short slant routes, Berrian must give way to Harvin. And, even with one tight end and three receivers, Berrian must currently be viewed as a fourth- or fifth-best option, behind the speedier Jaymar Johnson and Darius Reynaud.
Making changes at linebacker, in the secondary, and at wide receiver are both necessary and possible for the Vikings at this point in the season. The changes suggested above could prove the difference between another one-and-done in the playoffs and a playoff run. What remains to be seen, however, is whether inertia-prone head coach Brad Childress will both recognize the need for change and make the necessary changes. This is not a bet for the faint of heart.
Up Next: Playoff Posture.