Special Teams Prowess To Defensive Opportunity

Mike Nattiel

Three young linebackers are getting their chance this weekend on defense after proving themselves repeatedly on special teams.

As far as speedy linebackers go, the Vikings apparently rolled a pair of sixes in their most recent drafts.

In the Vikings' two drafts during head coach Mike Tice's regime, they have spent their sixth-round draft picks on two linebackers and a punter. The two linebackers, Nick Rogers and Mike Nattiel, started this season as special-teams cogs, but their play there has led to increased playing time on the team's defense.

In Sunday's game against Seattle, Rogers, the Vikings' 2002 sixth-rounder, will see more playing time at strongside linebacker than regular starter Henri Crockett. This year's sixth-rounder, Mike Nattiel, has seen his playing time increase at weakside linebacker behind Chris Claiborne, who will return to the lineup after missing a week because of a heel injury.

A team is always optimistic about its draft choices, especially in April. But it never could have expected that its two most recent sixth-rounders would be making such an impact on defense so soon.

"When you look at the value of a sixth-round pick, and we're actually playing with two sixth-rounders who have produced for us, we've been pleasantly surprised," linebackers coach Brian Baker said.

Rogers is happy to get the opportunity to play when it matters more — in December.

"For me, what's been really tough is to get that confidence that I had at the end of last year when I no longer had to think about things," Rogers said.

Rogers is referring to last season, when after serving as a backup at linebacker for the first five weeks of his rookie year, he made his first of 11 consecutive starts in Week 6.

Admittedly, his preparation was different this year, when he was a reserve behind Crockett.

"Being a backup, your focus is not going to truly be there like it would if you were a starter," Rogers said. "I'd watch tape, but there wouldn't be that sense of urgency there.

"But this is a great opportunity for me. I think my confidence with every practice we have is getting a little better and better."

Special teams showcase
Rogers, Nattiel and 2003 second-round draft choice E.J. Henderson, another linebacker, have been the top three tacklers on special teams most of the season. Now they're reaping those rewards by playing when it matters on defense.

"I'm just glad they're giving me the opportunity to go out there and make plays. That's all I can ask for," Nattiel said. "All of us special-team guys, we work hard. Going out on special teams takes a lot of speed and effort.

"I just go out and make the most out of my opportunity to be here with the Vikings."

Henderson, who was elevated to the nickel defense last month, will see his playing time increase against Seattle as well. He will rotate with veteran Greg Biekert at middle linebacker in the base defense.

Thanks to their play earlier this season on special teams, the future is now for the three young linebackers.

"We had to find a way to get these guys on the field a little more defensively so they could give us a spark like the sixth or seventh men in basketball," Baker said.

"I think (special teams play has helped) for all those kids. Number one, it shows intensity. Eighty percent of it is desire and intensity, wanting to make a play and wanting to make a tackle."

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