When the Vikings face the 49ers this week, they will be without one of their best defensive players. Linebacker Erin Henderson, my pick for the Vikings’ breakout player of the year before the season, has been every bit as good as I expected he would now that he’s an every down linebacker. ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, Henderson has 19 solo tackles, 3 assists, 14 stops and has only missed two. In coverage, he’s allowed 9 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown on 15 attempts, and he’s impressed as a blitzer too, with 2 sacks and a quarterback hit on 12 blitzes. He’s also been penalized once. However, after sustaining a concussion the Vikings have ruled him out for this week.
This puts the Vikings at even more of a disadvantage on paper, but they should still be able to give the 49ers a good game. Christian Ponder seems to be the only 2nd year quarterback who is actually improved over his rookie year, completing 47 of 62 for 515 yards and 2 touchdowns through 2 games, including 12 of 20 on throws that go longer than 10 yards through the air, which was an issue for him as a rookie (44 of 108). The coaching staff is using Percy Harvin properly this year and he’s become a legitimate #1 receiver and his offensive line is much improved over last year. Remember, last year, in the 9 games in which he led the team in passing attempts, the team scored 22.9 points per game, which would have been 16th in the league.
The 49ers, meanwhile, could be in a breather game situation, coming off two huge wins and having finally been anointed the best team in the league, with another tough test in New York against the Jets next week. The Vikings have the talent to take advantage of that. In terms of points per play differential, which is my favorite stat and one that I think best predicts future success, the Vikings rank 5th through 2 games, while the 49ers stand at 8th. Obviously, schedule has a lot to do with that as the 49ers have faced two playoff teams from 2011 and the Vikings have faced the Jaguars and Colts, but the Vikings are still better than they’re being given credit for. As 7.5 point underdogs, expect them to be able to cover at home.