Notebook: LB Erin Henderson returns to playing full time in nickel defense
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Erin Henderson finished the regular season the same way he began it.
The Vikings' weak-side linebacker saw extensive playing time in the final two games as the middle linebacker in the nickel defense.
Henderson started the year in that role but after missing two games because of a concussion suffered in Week 2 at Indianapolis, he had either shared the nickel role or lost it entirely to Jasper Brinkley.
How big of deal is it to be out of the nickel defense?
In the Vikings' 37-34 victory over Green Bay on Sunday in the regular-season finale, Henderson was on the field for 64 snaps. Brinkley, who starts at middle linebacker, played only 14 snaps because the Vikings were in their base defense for 10 snaps.
Henderson had his struggles against the Packers, especially on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in the third quarter on which Henderson did not follow the correct assignment. That left Jennings wide open for the score.
Coach Leslie Frazier, however, said that he has seen enough from Henderson of late that he felt the veteran deserved to be rewarded with more playing time.
"He's really stepped it up and done a much better job," Frazier said. "We wanted to give him the majority of the reps and take some of the things off Jasper's plate to help him continue to play better on early downs. So far, it's worked out pretty good."
Henderson, who took full responsibility for making a mental mistake on the Jennings touchdown, said he is getting comfortable again playing extensively in the nickel defense.
"They kind of sprung it on me going into Houston," Henderson said, referring to the Vikings' game against the Texans in Week 16. "It kind of came as a surprise at the end of the week. But going into this game, I had more time to prepare and kind of get comfortable with practicing and everything else. Now, it's just a matter of trying to take advantage of the opportunity that has been once again presented to me."
Henderson, who finished fifth on the Vikings with 105 tackles and also had three sacks this season, acknowledged that it's a "night and day" difference between playing weak-side linebacker in the base defense and middle linebacker in the nickel.
"When you're playing just the base (weak-side linebacker), you don't really have many responsibilities as far as calling the defense, setting the defense, making any checks or anything else," Henderson said. "You're pretty much out there just playing and taking care of your job. As for the (middle linebacker in the nickel), it's a whole other animal.
"You have to set the defense, you have to make any checks that come up. You have to make sure that everybody else knows the calls that are being called. You have to make sure that everybody is on the same page, as well as being ready to take care of your job once the ball is snapped. It's two different things, two different animals. But you figure out how to get it done."
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 28 of 40 passes for 365 yards with four touchdowns last Sunday, and the Vikings defense expects to get another tough test on Saturday night in a first-round playoff game at Lambeau Field.
Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said one thing that makes Rodgers special is his ability to hold onto the football and survey the field.
"He stays alive," Williams said. "He makes that offense go. We have to stay alive, we have to keep hustling, plaster (coverage) down the field, make sure you don't turn receivers loose. They do a fantastic job of the deep guys working short, the short guys working deep.
"It seems like if you look at it it's choreographed because he always finds an open guy. You have to be on your Ps and Qs in terms of getting after him first, being disciplined about how you rush and making sure in the back end that you keep the top on the defense. You don't let guys get behind you."
The Vikings struggled with that at times Sunday.
Jordy Nelson had a 73-yard reception, Greg Jennings caught a 45-yard pass and James Jones had a 20-yarder.
Nelson, who battled a hamstring injury this season, was limited on Wednesday because of a knee injury suffered Sunday at the Metrodome. He left the game for a period but returned to catch the tying touchdown pass with 2 minutes, 57 seconds to play.
Nelson sounded fairly confident Wednesday that he will be on the field Saturday night.
"We'll be good. We're good," Nelson told reporters in Green Bay. "I feel good. I honestly do. As of today, I would say I plan on playing. But there's a lot of time between now and then. I don't want to come out and say I am playing and then something happens and you guys are all going to come back at me and say I lied."
Other Packers players who were limited on Wednesday included tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps), running back James Starks (knee), wide receiver Randall Cobb (ankle) and cornerback Davon House (hip).
Safety Charles Woodson, who will return from a broken collarbone after missing the past nine games, took part in all of Wednesday's practice.
Rookie defensive lineman Jerel Worthy was listed as "out" for Saturday's game and will miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury.
The great unknown
Woodson, who will bring a veteran presence to the Packers' secondary, is expected to start at strong safety in Green Bay's 3-4 base defense and will shift to the slot corner in the nickel and dime defenses.
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave admitted he's not entirely sure how Woodson might be used Saturday after a lengthy layoff.
"That's the 10,000 dollar question," Musgrave said. "You would guess that Charles Woodson brings another element to the game, a little bit like a Troy Polamalu. There's going to be some ad-libbing and some instinctual play from him that you don't see from other players. That's what we would anticipate."
Making a contribution
Rookie Jarius Wright was inactive for the first nine games of the season but since then has made several contributions in the receiving game. He caught three passes for 90 yards and a touchdown last Sunday and has 22 receptions for 310 yards and two touchdowns. By comparison, veteran Jerome Simpson has 26 catches for 274 yards and no touchdowns in 12 games.
"I think we all get the sense that Christian (Ponder) has a lot of confidence in Jarius," Musgrave said. "He's a lot like Mike Jenkins, you know what depth he's going to be at, he's going to come out of the break the same way every time. Christian can throw those balls with anticipation so they get there on time."
Taking a leadership role
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has been impressed by what he has seen of Ponder in recent weeks and that goes beyond the quarterback's on-the-field performance.
"I think the biggest thing that he has done is he has kind of put himself towards the front of our team," Allen said. "Even in the beginning of the year when he was having success, he wasn't a vocal leader on the team. As far as the last few games, he has kind of brought the team up right before we break down, not a whole lot has to be said, but hearing your quarterback's voice, knowing that when he is pumped up, it gives you confidence that 'OK, the head of our offense, he is ready to go.'
"When I played with Trent Green (in Kansas City), you knew that the team was his, you knew that the offense was his. That is what Christian has done these last three, four weeks, he has really put himself more in front of the team in saying, 'Listen let's go, it's time to play,' and letting people hear his voice.
"That is what you have to do even though he is young and there are older guys on the team that are in leadership positions as well. To be a winning organization or team, your quarterback has to be that dominating force and has to be that guy that everybody looks to. I think that's really what he is starting to do and really starting to accept that role and being comfortable with it."
Walsh was named the NFC's special teams player of the week after making three field goals against the Packers, including the game-winner from 29 yards as time expired in regulation. It was the third time this season Walsh has earned the honor, making him the first rookie to do so since Chicago's Devin Hester in 2006. No Vikings rookie had ever previously won the player of the week award three times in one season.
The forecast for Saturday night in Green Bay calls for partly cloudy skies with a low of 17 degrees. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said the temperature issue is a "mind over matter" issue for him. "Green Bay, they're going to be cold just like us, so you just mentally have to get through it," Peterson said. "I've already defeated that, playing in the cold, that's done. I'm focused on executing my plays and everything like that. Just mentally getting your mind ready for that."
Peterson's reaction to the news that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis will retire after this season: "I hope he gives it another shot but it will definitely be a blow to the League to lose a guy like Ray Lewis. He definitely inspired me, just the passion and how he's dedicated to his craft to be the best. You don't see too many guys that play like that. That's definitely what makes him the best linebacker that's played the game. ... You lose a guy that like who has just been so inspirational with his words and how he has approached this game. It's going to be tough. He will never be forgotten, I can tell you that. He'll be missed always."