EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. Facing one of the league's top running offenses and an elite pass-catching tight end, the Minnesota Vikings will be without starting linebacker Erin Henderson this weekend.
Henderson, who leads Minnesota with 26 tackles and two sacks, is out for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers with a concussion. Free-agent signee Marvin Mitchell will start in Henderson's place as weakside linebacker and starting middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley will assume Henderson's role in the nickel defense.
"We'll miss him; there's no question about it," coach Leslie Frazier said after Friday's practice. "But it gives someone else an opportunity. Marvin Mitchell will get a chance now. It will get Audie Cole up as well and gives those guys a chance to play. That's part of our game. Injuries do occur. That's why your roster, you hope, is deep enough where you don't have a big drop off."
Backup defensive end D'Aundre Reed was listed as out with a calf strain. Henderson's absence is a big one against San Francisco (2-0), who is third in the league in rushing with lead back Frank Gore, and a passing game that features tight end Vernon Davis, already a matchup nightmare for most linebackers.
Mitchell, 27, was signed as a free-agent by Minnesota in the offseason, giving the team a veteran backup who has seen extensive action. In his six NFL seasons, Mitchell has played 71 games, mostly on special teams, but has started twice. The depth at linebacker was a concern for the Vikings after elevating Brinkley to a starting role and letting veteran E.J. Henderson go unsigned in free agency.
But after challenging for a starting spot with Erin Henderson early in training camp, Mitchell suffered a high ankle sprain and missed two weeks. He's been deactivated each of the first two weeks of the regular season and is officially listed as probable for Sunday because of the ankle injury.
Mitchell says he's recovered from the injury and is ready for his start on Sunday after coming to Minnesota hoping for the chance to start and play more in a defensive role instead of his special teams specialty.
"I think it was to start playing more defense," Mitchell said of the decision to come to Minnesota. "I've been in this league six years and I had a couple starts here and there, special teams guy. I visited with teams and the opportunity to come in and have a chance to be that backup linebacker and get a chance to start, would it be there?"
Brinkley's role as the nickel linebacker will also be challenged. Since the offseason program, Brinkley has wanted to prove to doubters he can be more than the run-stuffing linebacker he's been labeled. He will get his chance, and will be responsible at times for covering the deep middle part of the field in Minnesota's Cover-2 defense.
Brinkley filled in for a few plays in the nickel defense last week when Henderson came out of the game.
"You like for him to be able to handle some of the things that come up in pass situations," Frazier said. "A lot more happens, of course, in nickel situations than when you're in base offense from a pass standpoint. You like to see him be able to be in the right spot, and when he has opportunities to make plays, make those plays."
"This will be his chance just to show his teammates along with everyone else, 'You know what? I can do more than play on first and second down.' It's a great opportunity for him and I know he's looking forward to it."
Henderson left Sunday's game at Indianapolis after getting hit while trying to make a tackle. He later returned and Frazier said there were no signs of a concussion on Sunday. After two days, Henderson started to feel symptoms and was given a concussion test before Wednesday's practice and it was ruled a concussion.
The Vikings listed center John Sullivan (ankle), safety Andrew Sendejo (ankle), cornerback Chris Cook (biceps), tight end Rhett Ellison (ankle), defensive end Brian Robison (elbow) and receiver Jarius Wright (ankle) as probable for Sunday after each player was a full participant in Friday's practice.
Robison, a starting defensive end, has been practicing with a large brace on the elbow.
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