When the Vikings return to action Monday night, it is going to be a homecoming of sorts for Lito Sheppard, who spent one frustrating season with the New York Jets – the Vikings' opponent Monday. It was a crossroads of his career, spanning both the highs and lows.
Sheppard has some keen insight to the Jets, including a critical pair that have been missing in action. Perhaps the most important player on the field (if he is recovered from a hamstring injury) is Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. Given the nickname Revis Island, he has routinely been lined up one-on-one with an opponents' top wide receivers – guys like Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson. It's his job to shut down a team's go-to receiver and few, if any, players do it as well.
Sheppard was brought into the Jets in 2009 to be a lockdown corner on the other side of the defense. It didn't work as planned, but he got to work a lot with Revis and, after hearing about him from other players and watching him in film, working side by side with him gave Sheppard an informed perspective on the secrets of Revis Island.
"I get both sides of that because I played with him last year," Sheppard said. "It's one thing to do it in games, but he would do it practice every day. Our receivers hated going up against him. He is a great player because he's a hard worker and he's dedicated emotionally, mentally and physically to the game. It's going to be a challenge to our receivers"
While Revis remains a question mark for Monday with a hamstring injury, one player who will be making his Jets debut is someone who is likely to go heads up with Sheppard – wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
Holmes was forced to sit out the first four games of the season after failing the league's substance abuse policy, but he is back with the Jets as of this week and Sheppard said he's looking forward to seeing his friend before the game. But during the game? Not so much.
"He's one of my closer friends," Sheppard said. "We see each other quite a bit and know a lot about each other on and off the field. He's on the verge of being a great receiver. He hasn't really been able to flourish in the systems he has played in, but he's a great receiver. He's going to be excited to come back, especially on Monday night, and, while I don't know how they will use him, I do know he'll be ready."
Sheppard said one of the advantages the Vikings bring to the table in their game with New York is that they're no strangers to the prime-time stage. They're a popular choice for Sunday and Monday night games and Sheppard said that experience will help because the lights don't get any brighter than when the NFL is on in prime time in New York City.
"It's a prime time game," Sheppard said. "When you're not playing in them, more times than not you're watching. There's something special about that. Whenever you're playing in prime time, you get to show everybody what you've got."
When asked if he will have any added incentive, Sheppard walked the fence a little bit. When the Jets traded for Sheppard in February 2009, he was given a four-year, $21 million extension. He was still playing under his Eagles contract ($3 million for 2009), but was going to be due a $10 million option if he was still on the team the fifth business day of the 2010 league year. After an injury-plagued season in which he missed six games and was demoted to nickel back, the writing was on the wall.
Instead of reaping the benefits of going to a new system, Sheppard was cut. He said he understands the reasons why the Jets cut him loose – entirely financial, since his contract extension effectively paid the rookie contract of first-rounder Kyle Wilson. It only fuels his desire to make a difference on Monday night for the Vikings.
"You always get hyped to play against teams you played with," Sheppard said. "There's no animosity that I have toward (the Jets). It's all about business and you've got to understand that. I do, especially at this point in my career. It's the past and I've moved on as a member of the Vikings. But it's natural that you always want to put your best foot forward against those teams."
The scene will be a bit surreal for Sheppard, who nine months ago thought he would be on the other sideline. He said you don't need to talk up this game. While the focus of the national media will surely shine almost entirely on the return of Brett Favre, Sheppard hopes that he can help steal away the spotlight from Favre, Revis and Holmes. He said this is a game he is going to be ready for.
"It will be an exciting night," Sheppard said. "Back in New York. Playing against my former team. Under the bright lights. If you can't get up for a game like that, you don't belong here. I'm just looking to do what I can to make a good night for the Vikings."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Sheppard set for his Jets return, too
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