Shiancoe a green light in the red zone

Visanthe Shiancoe (Marilyn Indahl/Viking Update)

Nobody has caught more touchdown passes for the Vikings this year than TE Visanthe Shiancoe. In fact, he's tied for the NFL lead. He and Brett Favre have developed a red zone connection, and each of them talked about the progression, as did offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Visanthe Shiancoe has as many touchdown catches the last two games with the Minnesota Vikings as he had in his first four seasons with the New York Giants.

Before joining the Vikings in 2007, Shiancoe had zero touchdown receptions for the New York Giants in 2006. That equaled his output from 2005. Before that, he had three touchdowns in his first two seasons in the league.

Shiancoe's statistics the last two years in purple are as different-looking as Brett Favre in a Vikings uniform for the 2009 season opener.

"Shank has come a long way. I think that first year he was kind of finding his way in the offense and trying to get an understanding of it. I think last year the light kind of came on and he knew how he fit in and I think he's kind of picking up where he left off last year," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

On Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, Shiancoe made what he and many others would consider one of the best catches of his career on the Vikings' opening drive of the game. Facing second-and-13 from the 19-yard line, Brett Favre saw that the defense was flagged for offsides and decided to take a shot at the end zone. With Shiancoe starting to curl his route from the right to the middle of the field, Favre threw behind Shiancoe to keep the ball away from the safety. The athletic tight end reached behind his body and grabbed the back end of the ball with his fingertips.

"I (saw) what Brett was trying to do. He was trying to throw to me away from the safety," Shiancoe said. "I ran the route up there, but I was bending it toward the safety. He took the hit off me, so he had to put it there. But I don't know how the hell I made that catch. Looking back at film, it was a fingertip catch."

Shiancoe's big plays have become more frequent the last 20 games of his Vikings career. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the end zone.

The key, according to Bevell and Shiancoe, has been his increased understanding of not only the Vikings offense but the opposing defenses.

"To really get a feel for the defense, for the zone and open areas, man versus zone," Shiancoe said of his improvement in the red zone. "If it's zone, you've got to get in that open area or at least box out that guy … and leave a lot of room for the QB to work with. If they're in man, it speeds up, so you have to be a little bit quicker, a little bit faster. Everything kind of tightens down in the red zone."

This year, the stats show all that knowledge going to good use. Shiancoe is third in the NFC in scoring among non-kickers with 30 points and is tied with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald for the NFL lead with five touchdown catches.

No question having Favre at the trigger and looking his way has helped.

"If you look at my career, or maybe in this offense in general, it's kind of the crutch to go to the tight end. (They don't) get a lot of yards. I can probably count on my hand the amount of 100-yard tight end games that I have been a part of in my career. So we don't throw for a lot of yards to the tight end, but a lot of short and intermediate passes – touchdowns and plays like that," Favre said. "Bubba (Franks) comes to mind most recently. Shank fits that most, first of all. He's a big, physical target. I think the sky is the limit for a guy like him, throughout the field. He can stretch the field. He can really put guys in a bind if you want to put a corner on him. As good as our running game is and can be, and has been throughout, you don't need much room and you don't need much room anyway on certain passes. When you have a big physical target it sure helps."

So does Shiancoe's work ethic. He is often one of the final players to leave the practice field. He estimates he catches between 1,200 and 1,500 balls per month – after practices. Sometimes he is standing up and looking over the opposite shoulder. Other times, he is on his knees and contorting his body at odd angles. He'll even lay on the ground and have a defender wave a hand in his face while an assistant coach fires footballs at him from above.

Why all the extra work? He picked up on the work ethic for former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.

"I don't want to level off. There is always someone on your ass," he said. "You always want to get better than the next guy. That's the way you have to think."

After his initial season with the Vikings in 2007, when he caught one touchdown pass, Shiancoe caught 42 passes, including seven touchdowns, last year. This year, he is on pace for 45 catches and 11 touchdowns.

Shiancoe's ascension among the NFL's tight end crop has been impressive.

"He understands what we're trying to do with him. He understands the defensives that we're looking at now and how the play fits into that defense, which I think is huge," Bevell of Shiancoe's red zone prosperity. "He can make an adjustment if he needs to. And he's making plays when he gets an opportunity. That catch he made in the end zone for the first touchdown, that's a phenomenal catch. He did a nice job adjusting to the ball."

Favre offered even higher praise.

"I even wonder sometimes if Shank has any idea of how good he can be. That catch he made the first drive was unbelievable. I don't know how he caught it. It was a great catch," he said. "When I threw it, I thought it was too far, but then I go ‘OK, you make me look good.' That is the type of player he can be and then some. I think he can stretch teams like no other."

Two years ago, nobody would have guessed it.

WINFIELD MISSES ANOTHER DAY

For the second straight day, CB Antoine Winfield (foot) did not practice.

"If there is anybody that has a chance because of the notes he takes and how he looks at it, at some point you have to warm up and move around," Childress said, noting that Winfield will be making the trip to Pittsburgh.

"He's as tough of they come. I think my first year he had a quad contusion that I didn't think he was going to back it from. … He's going to battle to make it to Sunday."

Childress said all the other cornerbacks play special teams and would be available, but he stopped short of confirming that all of them would be active on Sunday.

On Wednesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "We are assuming that this guy is going to play. Of course he is a significant piece of the puzzle."

NOTES

  • The Vikings didn't have any changes to their injury report. Safeties Madieu Williams (quadriceps), Husain Abdullah (back) and Eric Frampton (ankle), WRs Percy Harvin (shoulder) and Darius Reynaud (hamstring), T Phil Loadholt (ankle) and RB Adrian Peterson (ankle) were all limited.

    For the Steelers, S Troy Polamalu (knee) and LB Andre Frazier (thigh) did not practice. DE Travis Kirschke and WR Hines Ward were back at practice after missing Wednesday for non-injury related reasons, and RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) practiced fully after not participating Wednesday.

  • Shiancoe had high praise for the way Brett Favre is playing. Favre is 6-0 for the first time in his career and leads the NFC with a 69.7 completion percentage and is third in the NFL with a 109.5 passer rating. "That's why Coach Childress was willing to cut off his arms and his legs to bring him in," Shiancoe said. "He was the missing piece of the puzzle, and the rest of the puzzle wasn't even together yet. The missing piece that brought the rest of the puzzle together."

  • Brett Favre is one of only four quarterbacks in Vikings history to post three straight games with passer ratings of 100 or more.

  • Jared Allen is third in the NFL and leads the NFC with 7½ sacks. Allen also has a sack, forced fumble or fumble recovery in five straight games.

  • Scout.com's Chris Steuber continues to have Percy Harvin ranked second among NFL rookies. "Being on a 6-0 team and playmaker with Harvin's unique skills helps his ranking. But his shoulder injury is a concern and something to keep an eye on," Steuber wrote.


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