Antoine Winfield took a step back for the season finale against the New York Giants, taking on a reduced role as he finds a balance where he can be most effective while dealing with a foot injury.
That injury took Winfield out of six straight games during the middle of the season. He returned against Cincinnati on Dec. 13 and made an immediate impact, recording a team-high 10 tackles and a forced fumble, but he wasn’t exposed often in the Bengals’ passing game. After a rough outing against the Carolina Panthers and giving up the overtime touchdown to the Chicago Bears the following week, the Vikings limited Winfield to playing nickel back in the regular-season finale against the Giants.
“Playing the slot, the movement is not as much,” Winfield said Wednesday. “Playing on the outside you’ve got to worry about the deep ball, you’ve got to worry about running across the field. In the slot, I’m moving in spaces that are limited so I’m not moving as much.”
That’s good news with a foot injury that needs time to heal. Vikings coach Brad Childress and Winfield have both indicated the injury won’t completely heal until months after the season.
“We’re 12 weeks out from that injury so you know, again, without being a radiologist, I don’t know if we’ve got any bony callous or what the level of that is or anything like that, but he seems to be pretty comfortable,” Childress said. “I’ll be interested in watching him move (in practice).”
Winfield looked to be moving fine in practice during the portion open to the media, but he was limited Wednesday and likely will be until the Vikings’ season ends.
Childress said the Vikings wouldn’t always limit Winfield to the nickel role in their playoff opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, but he declined to get into specifics, asking if he could plead the fifth.
“I know it’s not a court of law, but you know, competitive advantage. … It’s for you guys to figure it out,” Childress said.
But there is no question that Winfield can make an impact in the playoffs. He has more than 30 tackles and two interceptions in four playoff games. In 2004, he led the Vikings with 22 tackles and an interception in two postseason games.
After the Giants game, he said his foot felt good, “not tired,” and he liked the way he was used to cover the slot receiver, turning into a defensive playmaker.
“Every time they went three receivers I would come into nickel back, blitzed a little bit, played a little zone. Didn’t have to do too much to put some pressure on the foot. Everything worked out,” he said.
“I love playing the nickel. That’s where most of the action is, especially if you’re in a run front.”
The matchup between the Cowboys and Vikings pits two similarly productive teams. Childress pointed to the explosiveness of the Cowboys. The Vikings chart explosive plays as rushes of 15 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or more.
“There isn’t as explosive of a team as they are offensively in the playoffs,” Childress said. “… I think they have 123 explosive plays that we looked at through the season here, run and pass. And they’ve given up only 34 sacks, same as us, 34 sacks. And then defensively, you see them (getting) 42 sacks. They’ve given up 97 explosive plays. Any of the numbers you look at, they’re a top-10 offense, top-10 defense. I said this before, as are we, and something has to give right here.”
Much has been made of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, but Childress said the interior of their defense has playmakers as well.
“A guy like (inside linebacker Keith) Brooking, they feature him blitzing. He does a great job of timing up his A gap blitzes, and I look at the nose guard. Ninety (DT Jay Ratliff) can bring pressure anyway you want it,” Childress said. “He can walk the center back. He can make a quick move and beat you with quickness in there, and then they wave people in and have some pretty good people that they can bring in the game in their nickel situations.”
Vikings receiver Sidney Rice worked out with Cowboys running back Marion Barber for about a month during the offseason. Rice met Barber through former Vikings safety Jack Brewer and stayed at his residence in Miami. Barber and Brewer are both former Gophers.
“He’s definitely one of the hardest workers I’ve been around,” Rice said of Barber. “He’s a tough guy and he’s never going to give up. I’m sure our defense knows that from watching film.”