Personnel Preview: Vikings-Saints

Both the Vikings and Saints will be inserting new (or returning) starters into their lineups Sunday night, and the Saints are flip-flopping their secondary. See what each team has to say about the moves and get the injury updates from both camps.

The Vikings came out of a hard-hitting Thursday practice still on track for the return of three injured starters for Sunday night's game at New Orleans.

Center Matt Birk (ankle), weakside linebacker Chris Claiborne (calf) and tight end Jermaine Wiggins (hand) practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Birk and Claiborne will play, barring a setback. Wiggins is listed as questionable, but coach Mike Tice said he "looked excellent" in practice.

Wiggins, the pass-catching free agent signed this past offseason, hasn't played since breaking his left hand at Philadelphia in the second game of the season. He is wearing a small custom-made brace that allows him to catch the ball, he said.

"I know it's a go for me this week," Wiggins said. "I took some good hits on the hand, some shots, caught some balls. Once the game starts, I'll probably forget I have (the brace) on."

Claiborne ran better Thursday than he did Wednesday. He said he'll be at full speed by Sunday, although he has said that before and been wrong.

Birk played the final three snaps last week at Houston after Cory Withrow left the game because of torn knee cartilage. Withrow is out this week. Billy Conaty was re-signed to back up Birk.

  • In addition to starting at running back, rookie Mewelde Moore will return kickoffs again because Keenan Howry (shoulder) was placed on injured reserve this week. Howry was averaging 22.5 yards on two returns. Moore has a team-high eight returns and a 17.9-yard average.

  • WR Nate Burleson will replace Howry as the No. 1 punt returner. Burleson has an 8.5-yard average on two returns. Howry averaged 16.5 yards on two returns.

  • FS Brian Russell returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice because of food poisoning. Russell isn't believed to have gotten sick from eating at the team's cafeteria because no one else who ate there did.

  • RB Moe Williams practiced Thursday for the first time this week. The Vikings expect to use him in a limited role, probably as a pass protector or in short-yardage situations.

  • LB E.J. Henderson (knee) is on schedule to return next week against Tennessee.

  • RB Michael Bennett, who hasn't played since the third preseason game because of knee injuries and an arthroscopic surgery, is back running and making cuts. He might be able to play next week against Jacksonville.

    The Saints didn't make a trade for cornerback Mike McKenzie to watch him sit on the sideline, so it was no surprise to see him working with the first-team defense this week.

    McKenzie replaced Fred Thomas, a three-year starter, in the lineup on Wednesday and will start at left cornerback in Sunday night's game with the Minnesota Vikings in the Superdome. Left cornerback Ashley Ambrose will slide to the right side with Thomas taking over as the nickel back.

    "I'm really just charged up for the opportunity to get out there and play this Sunday," said McKenzie, who was obtained from the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 4. "Everything is set for us. It's a real big game. We definitely need to find a way to get a `W' and get our record back to even-steven. I couldn't ask for a better situation, a better game, at home, against the Vikings."

    McKenzie, who did not suit up against the Tampa Bay Bucs last week because he was still learning the Saints' defense, has a history with the Vikings and All-Pro wideout Randy Moss. McKenzie played against them twice a year since coming into the league as a third-round draft pick in 1999, so the Saints are hoping his experience will be put to good use right away.

    Thomas has been bothered by injuries to his ribs, groin and foot this season, wasn't happy with the demotion. But he understood that a change was coming when the Saints got McKenzie.

    "With the way our team has been performing and with our record, I can honestly say I'm one of the guys who didn't perform to my expectations," Thomas said. "The coaches said this was a perfect time for Mike to make his debut and I just have to go on with it.

    "In this league, you need three to four solid corners anyway. From the first to the fourth corner, we're all starters. A lot of teams use three and four wide receivers, so I'm going to be on the field a lot."

    Saints coach Jim Haslett said McKenzie's familiarity with the Vikings should make for a smooth transition.

    "He'll know the Vikings' personnel and what they're trying to do, but he's got to know what we're trying to accomplish," Haslett said. "He was here all day Tuesday and Tuesday night with the coaches, and he was in early Wednesday. So when the gun goes off Sunday, he'll be ready to go."

  • RB Deuce McAllister, who returned to the starting lineup last Sunday after missing two games with a sprained right ankle, is listed as probable for the game with the Vikings.

  • LCB Mike McKenzie is nursing a sore hamstring, but coach Jim Haslett said he expects him to be 100 percent by the end of the week. McKenzie will start in place of right corner Fred Thomas, but will play the left side with Ashley Ambrose moving to the right side.

  • MLB Courtney Watson, a rookie who started the first four games, returned to practice this week after missing the game with the Bucs because of a sore right knee. Watson had some fluid removed from the knee last week, but is expected to be ready for Sunday's game.

  • WLB Derrick Rodgers did not practice Thursday because of a bruised sternum. Rodgers was injured in Sunday's game with the Bucs and was taken to a hospital after the game.

  • SLB Sedrick Hodge, a backup last week after returning from a four-game league-imposed suspension, will move to the weak side if Rodgers can't go against the Vikings.

  • WR Talman Gardner, who has missed two games with a sprained right ankle, returned to practice on a limited basis this week. He is listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

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