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  1. #1
    singersp's Avatar
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    The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    Posted on Thu, Aug. 24, 2006

    [size=16pt]The fix is in[/size]

    Linebacker has been a revolving door for the Vikings in recent seasons, but with a new scheme and a fresh start, they are counting on that to change.

    BY MARCUS R. FULLER
    Pioneer Press


    On one side at middle linebacker is Ray Lewis, a two-time NFL defensive player of the year and seven-time Pro Bowler for the Baltimore Ravens.

    On the other side is the Vikings' Napoleon Harris, best known for being acquired from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade.

    It has been six years since Baltimore won Super Bowl XXXV behind Lewis. But the Ravens, who play Minnesota in an exhibition game Friday at the Metrodome, still have a defense that's respected around the NFL.

    After drawing heavy criticism for his inconsistent play last season, Harris doesn't lend instant credibility to the Vikings' defense and its starting linebackers, also including E.J. Henderson and newcomer Ben Leber. But Harris and his teammates are working hard to prove they deserve recognition.

    "We're making strides," Harris said. "I think we're going to be a lot better than people anticipate."

    The biggest question mark is whether Harris can take over for Sam Cowart, who signed with the Houston Texans after leading Minnesota with 104 total tackles last season.

    It will be Harris' first chance to start at middle linebacker since his rookie season with Oakland in 2002. Despite being hampered by a knee injury in 2005, Harris hoped the position would be his last season.

    "I think the previous coaching staff used the injury as a crutch against me," he said. "I really didn't get off on the right track. But I didn't get the opportunity to do so. I think I've been given the opportunity by this new coaching staff. I'm going to make the most of it."

    Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin has watched Harris outperform backup Dontarrious Thomas at training camp in his Tampa-2 defensive scheme, and he thinks Harris can succeed in his new role.

    Harris showed a glimpse of that potential when he put a big hit on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter of Saturday's exhibition victory at Pittsburgh.

    "He has what you're looking for in terms of a man standing in front of the defense," Tomlin said. "He's a great communicator. He is a highly motivated guy."

    Tomlin also believes the entire linebacker unit is progressing, but it's a long way from being solid.

    "I see guys taking steps," he said. "But we are a work in progress at that position, just like we are as a defense."

    The Vikings addressed their needs at the position in the offseason by using their top draft pick on Iowa's Chad Greenway and making the signing of Leber a top priority.

    Greenway, who was expected to challenge Henderson for the starting spot at weak-side linebacker, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first exhibition game against the Raiders.

    But Henderson has continued to be the most impressive defensive player in camp.

    "At Will (weak-side) linebacker you have to be a little bit quicker, more athletic and more disciplined," Harris said. "I think those are the things (E.J.) really worked on in the offseason."

    Henderson said Greenway's loss shouldn't derail what the linebackers hope to accomplish this year. Heath Farwell, who leads the team in tackles during the exhibition season, and Rod Davis also could be added to the regular-season roster to provide depth.

    "We're still a solid bunch," said Henderson, second on the team with 102 tackles last season. "It's important to establish early what kind of group we want to be."

    Leber, who starts a strong-side linebacker, has seen a big turnaround on defense before. A foot injury cut short his season after nine games in 2005, but he helped the San Diego Chargers climb from being one of the worst defenses in the NFL to ranking 13th overall last season.

    Leber was on pace for an outstanding year in San Diego, but he believes the Vikings and Tomlin's defense are an even better fit.

    "One thing coach Tomlin has done for us is kept everything pretty simple," he said. "As linebackers, we're the quarterbacks of the defense. We have to know everything that's going on and have to be accountable for everybody. I think we've done a good job the first couple games with doing that. We're always looking to get better and improve. Every guy out here personally has something to prove."

    Marcus R. Fuller can be reached at [email protected]

    Vikings' Starting linebackers

    Strong-side Middle







    Weak-side
    2006 Ben Leber Napoleon



    Harris E.J. Henderson
    2005 Harris/Keith Newman



    Sam Cowart Henderson
    2004 Newman












    Henderson Chris Claiborne
    2003 Henri Crockett







    Greg Biekert Claiborne
    2002 Crockett












    Biekert Nick Rogers

    BEN LEBER

    Highlights: Was one of the NFL leaders in sacks before suffering a foot injury last season.

    Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin: "With his 3-4 background, he has unique skills as a rusher."

    Napoleon Harris

    Highlights: Ranked second on the Raiders in tackles with 109 in 2003.

    Tomlin: "He has some intangibles in terms of standing in front of the defense and communicating."

    E.J. Henderson

    Highlights: Led the Vikings with 125 tackles in 2004.

    Tomlin: "Has had a nice camp, kind of solidifying himself at that Will (weak-side) linebacker position."

    "If at first you don't succeed, parachuting is not for you"

  2. #2
    Ltrey33 is offline Jersey Retired
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    I can't wait to see Leber play, and I think that Napo might finally flourish under this new system. I'm still not sold on EJ though.

  3. #3
    Prophet Guest

    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    Glad you're back from Ned's big adventure and still have enough energy to keep us informed.

  4. #4
    Del Rio Guest

    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    The Middle Linebacker is going to make or break this defense. His ability to communicate and to organize on the field. We call the MLB the on the field coach. It's going to play a huge roll in how the entire defense performs.

  5. #5
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    not sold on E.J.? if anything im not sold on napo, although he's been playing well in the preseason, henderson has been playing extremely well all summer, this guy really improved from last year


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  6. #6
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    Courtney Watson is available (the Bills cut him)...he might be a good backup to pickup on the cheap!
    BANNED OR DEAD...I'LL TAKE EITHER ONE

  7. #7
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    I agree that Harris should be the biggest concern. Seems like Tomlin is pretty sold on his communication skills though, which really is the most important thing. After all, he'll have the Williams duo in front of him, and with those two, he'll probably spend a lot of time in pass coverage. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if Harris hauls in a pick or two this year.

  8. #8
    V-Unit's Avatar
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    We should have kept Newman. Where is he now?
    "I hate when threads are destroyed by facts and logic."
    - Prophet


    Thanks Josdin!

  9. #9
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    I think Harris can be our leader at MLB.Hes shown nothing but good strides since camp.At weakside I think E.J. will do great.He started to really pick up his game twords the end of last year.I think our LB core is vastly underaited, and rightfully so.However I think we'll start to turn some heads with this D.

    Theres NOTHING greater then a Florida Gator!
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  10. #10
    Mr Anderson's Avatar
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    Re: The fix is in: Linebackers making strides

    "V-Unit" wrote:
    We should have kept Newman. Where is he now?
    Probably on the Rams with the rest of our ex players.

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