Veteran Winfield Keys Vikings' Turnaround

Winfield (Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports)

How have the Vikings gone from 3-13 to fighting for a playoff spot? Look no further than Antonio Winfield, who coach Mike McCarthy called one of his favorite players on another team and Aaron Rodgers called "probably the toughest pound-for-pound guy in the league."

Last season, when the Green Bay Packers faced the Minnesota Vikings twice in the span of three weeks, Aaron Rodgers lit them up for 78 points.

This season, when the Packers faced the Vikings four weeks ago, they struggled to score 23 points.

"Biggest difference I see in that defense from year to year is when Antoine Winfield is healthy, they play better," Rodgers, looking ahead to Round 2 said on Wednesday. "He's a big-time player, very good cover guy, incredible tackler, he's tough, and when he's playing, their defense can do some more of the things they want to do."

Last year, Winfield missed the 33-27 loss at the Metrodome with a neck injury, then sustained a broken clavicle when the Packers won 45-7 a few weeks later. With Winfield missing 11 games, the Vikings finished 3-13 and surrendered a 31st-ranked 28.1 points per game.

This season, the Vikings are 9-6 with a chance to clinch a playoff berth by beating the Packers on Sunday. They rank 11th with 20.9 points per game allowed.

"I've been very excited about the season," the 35-year-old cornerback said during a conference call on Wednesday. "Missing, what, 10 or 11 games last year, it's exciting to get back out there. I worked hard during the offseason. I love being out on the field making plays and trying to help this team win."

Winfield and Charles Woodson are the cream of the crop when it comes to playing the nickel position. More often than not, cornerbacks shy away from contact. Winfield and, when healthy, Woodson excel in the slot because they are fearless against the run and have the athleticism to match up in the passing game, where slot receivers have the entire route tree at their disposal.

"I've talked on him time and time again," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think he's clearly one of my favorite players on another team. I've always had a great respect for his game. He's been impactful. He's an outstanding tackler. Instinctive. He plays in the slot position in that defense very well as far as the vision that he plays with, anticipation. So, a veteran, instinctive, tough football player."

At 5-foot-9, the 1999 first-round pick remains solid in coverage. Based on ProFootballFocus.com's numbers, he ranks 15th out of 75 cornerbacks (based on 50 percent playing time) with a passer rating allowed of 71.6. He is one of four cornerbacks in the league who have not allowed a touchdown pass while playing more than 400 passing snaps.

"I think there's four or five guys, you have to put Ronde Barber (and Woodson) in that category, who's been playing inside and playing at a high level for a very long time," Rodgers said. "It's a tough position. You have a two-way-go with your receiver just about every time. There's not a lot of help, especially immediate help, when you're playing in the slot like that. You have to be able to blitz, you have to be able to tackle. Antoine's been doing it a high level for a long time."

It's the run game, however, where Winfield is a menace. There aren't many cornerbacks that must be game-planned because of their run-stopping ability, but Winfield is one of them. Winfield has 26 run stops (a solo tackle resulting in a gain of 3 yards or less on first down, less than half the required distance on second down and any tackle short of the first down on third down), according to ProFootballFocus.com. Denver's Chris Harris (15) is the only other cornerback with even half of that number.

"He's got real good instincts and he's very quick-twitched," Rodgers said. "If he feels something, he acts on it and he's an incredible tackler. He's probably the toughest pound-for-pound guy in the league and the best tackler at his position for sure, as well. He's got great fundamentals and a great stroke and he's a guy you have to account for every play."

Rodgers vs. Winfield will be the matchup within the matchup on Sunday.

"Great player. No. 1 quarterback in the league, in my mind," Winfield said of Rodgers. "The guy can make all the throws, very smart, doesn't turn the ball over, doesn't make that many mistakes. Last game, we did a great job of covering up the receivers but he was buying so much time that those guys would shake free (or) he would run for a first down to keep the chains moving."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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