Early in the preseason, Asher Allen was almost an afterthought at cornerback. The Vikings were expecting that Cedric Griffin wouldn't be ready for the start of the season, so the team was aggressive in the offseason – making veteran CB Lito Sheppard one of their few free-agent moves and using their first pick in April's college draft to select Chris Cook. It was clear that the Vikings recognized depth at corner as a need and Allen wasn't fitting into those plans.
Flash forward a couple of months. Not only is Allen still a part of the cornerback mix, but with Benny Sapp traded to Miami and Griffin lost for the season with a second torn ACL, Allen has stepped into the breach and is in line to be the starting cornerback, or minimum the nickel back, opposite Antoine Winfield when the Vikings meet Dallas and beyond.
Although Allen said he looks forward to the chance to contribute to a Vikings defense that is rated fifth in the league, he said the loss of Griffin is a big blow to the Vikings defense.
"It's huge loss," Allen said. "Not only is Cedric a leader on the team, but especially for the defensive backs. We've got to do some big-time picking it up where he left off."
Griffin's loss, while unexpected, was something the Vikings prepared for. There was no telling if his rehabilitation from the injury suffered in late January in New Orleans would be healed by the time the season started. As a result, players like Allen were able to get a lot more work with the first-team defense and make an impression on the coaching staff. Having Griffin out weakens the group, but Allen said it was good to have the work beforehand so both he and the coaching staff could be confident putting him into regular-season games with critical defensive assignments.
"As far as rep-wise, it was helpful that we all got to get more playing time," Allen said. "I think in a strange way, it's helped us because we all got more comfortable getting playing time."
Sheppard, who came over from the Jets, said that Griffin's absence (or potential absence) was what prompted the move on him and he said that uncertainty was something the Vikings took very seriously.
"You could see that the Vikings were concerned about it," Sheppard said. "They brought me in as a free agent and used their first draft pick to take Chris. They saw that there potentially was going to be a need there and went about to address it in both free agency and the draft. We were both new to the system, but being able to get a lot of work in the preseason and training camp helped us both out – and young guys like Asher, too."
When Griffin went down Monday night, he was replaced by Allen and it didn't take the Jets and quarterback Mark Sanchez long to identify him and direct passes his way. He was targeted by the Jets offense as a potential weak link and Allen said he wasn't surprised.
"It is what it is," Allen said. "It's a chance for you to make plays. You know any time you've got Antoine on the other side – a 12-year guy – they've got years of film on him. They know what they going against over there, so I think it's natural that would look more to my side."
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier wasn't surprised either.
"Watching the game, for sure they took some shots at him when Cedric went down, throws that weren't going that direction when Cedric was out there, which was smart on their part. That's what you should do in that situation," Frazier said. "It's good for Asher, a good test for him. There will be more like this week. He's going to get tested and I'm sure Lito will too when he's out there. I'm sure they're going to consistently try to make a living off Antoine, so that's the way it's going to be."
Sheppard said that such practices aren't uncommon. When he was a first-year starter, opposing QBs did the same to him. Vikings fans will remember that Griffin was targeted often early in his career and that didn't stop until he proved he could make plays – both with interceptions and pass break-ups. Sheppard said that, until Allen makes a big play or two, there's no reason to think they won't continue the assault.
"Offenses look for any sign of weakness they can find in a defense," Sheppard said. "When you have a starter go down, they will go after the replacement guy because they figure he must be a step down from the starting guy and they can take advantage of him. It happens all the time. Asher is going to get picked on until he shows them that it isn't the best move to test him so often. We've all been through it."
Allen and the other defensive backs are going to face a stiff challenge from a Cowboys receiver corps that is led by speedy Miles Austin and huge receivers Roy Williams and Dez Bryant. They will pose a challenge to the Vikings corners and Allen said the key is going to be getting physical with them and slow them coming off the line.
"With their size, they can push off (at the line) and create mismatches that way," Allen said. "We're going to have to be ready for that, because we know they're going to try to throw a lot, especially if we can slow down their running game and force them to pass."
With the 6-foot-3 Williams and the 6-foot-2 Bryant, the Cowboys are likely to try to isolate them on Allen.
"Asher's not going to get much taller, so it is what it is. We've just got to rush the passer," Frazier said. "They're going to get the ball out sometimes on time. If they're going to throw three-step on Ash and Lito and whoever else is out there we'll have to stand up and make some plays."
You can bet the Dallas, which, like the Vikings, had Super Bowl aspirations at the start of the season that seem to be evaporating quickly, will be targeting Allen Sunday. He knows it's coming, but said he's ready to prove that he can handle whatever Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense throw at him.
"You can expect that," Allen said. "I know teams will be looking at me and coming after me to see what I've got. I want the challenge. When you play cornerback, you want them coming after you. I know they will and I'll be ready for it."
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.
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