The Minnesota Vikings cornerback returns from injury to take on the in-form Green Bay Packers.
Antoine Winfield ready for 'tough challenge'
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minnesota // The Minnesota Vikings are one of the eight NFL teams this season who have already experienced the excellence of Aaron Rodgers.
They are on the verge of a second showing.
The Vikings play at Green Bay on Monday night, and the Packers have not broken stride. They are still unbeaten, riding a passing attack rivalling any of the best in league history. Minnesota's secondary remains unsettled, hardly an ideal scenario for facing Rodgers and his golden right arm.
"We definitely have a tough challenge ahead," said Antoine Winfield, the cornerback, who is set to return to the starting line-up after missing the last four games because of a neck injury.
Though Rodgers threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns in Green Bay's 33-27 victory at Minnesota last month - connecting on 80 per cent of his passes with drops and spikes responsible for some of the incompletions - the Vikings' beleaguered defensive backs actually held their own considering the mismatches on show.
Winfield was watching on the sideline and Chris Cook, the team's best cover man, was in prison. But the Packers converted only two of their eight third downs, thanks in part to a strong pass rush by the Vikings up front.
This week, Winfield is back, giving the group a much-needed lift. Asher Allen, who started at cornerback in the win at Carolina on October 30, got a boost of his own by shadowing Steve Smith, the Panthers wide receiver, and keeping him from dominating the game.
"The coaches know what I can do," Allen said, adding: "It was good to go out there and play against somebody like that."
Leslie Frazier, the Minnesota head coach, indicated the Vikings are still considering signing another cornerback, but for now they will go with what they have. Cook remained on the roster this week, but facing a felony domestic assault charge, he is unlikely to be available for the rest of the season.
Marcus Sherels made the team as a punt returner, an overachiever the coaching staff is quite fond of, but his role is essentially limited to the dime packages.
That puts the onus for improvement squarely on cornerback Cedric Griffin, whose comeback from a second reconstructive knee surgery - he has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in each leg - has been a struggle. He has not missed any time, but his ability to stick with opposing top receivers is still in question.
Griffin has declined to discuss his recovery this season. Allen was assigned to Smith, not Griffin, one sign of where he is at. But Frazier said on Monday that Griffin, at this point, remains the starter.
"They wouldn't put him out there if they didn't feel like he was ready to play. He's out there, so he has everybody's confidence," Allen said.
Winfield will be asked to do a lot as well, as usual. He said returning to the field will be "like riding a bike". The team's surest tackler, who has long been pound-for-pound one of the toughest players in the league, said he is not concerned about being skittish when the ball comes his way.
"I love contact. I love to hit and put my head in there, and then with the neck injury it made it that much harder," Winfield said.
"So I took the time I needed, I feel great, body feels great, so I'm ready to go."