Weak Play On The Weak Side

The Vikings Achilles' heel on defense has been the play of their linebackers, especially on the weak side. That starting position could be up in the air all week. Get that and many other pre-Packer notes.

The Vikings used three different weakside linebackers with unsatisfactory results against the Colts. Rookie Dontarrious Thomas, who was benched earlier in the season because of inexperience, started. Mike Nattiel, who was benched because of poor practice habits, replaced him. Finally, converted safety Willie Offord stepped in.

Now, a fourth player is in the mix because veteran Chris Claiborne might be healthy enough to regain his starting position. Claiborne has missed the past three games and all but one play of the last five games because of a strained left calf.

Claiborne returned to practice Wednesday, but the Vikings aren't convinced the leg will hold up through the week.

Third-year pro Raonall Smith started two games in Claiborne's absence before missing the Colts game because of two recent concussions. The Vikings aren't counting on Smith this week.

If Claiborne and Smith can't play, Nattiel will get the start. After looking at the films of Monday's game, the Vikings believe Nattiel played the best of the three. He botched only one key coverage drop.

--In seven games against the Packers, QB Daunte Culpepper has completed only 56.2 percent of his passes (122 of 217) for 1,545 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

  • Kickoff specialist Jose Cortez was signed Wednesday to replace Aaron Elling, who broke his right ankle making a tackle against the Colts. Cortez, who kicked in two games for the Vikings last season, was working as a FedEx delivery man when the Vikings called. "They had to get someone to cover my route," Cortez said. Cortez beat out six other kickers in a Tuesday tryout to replace Elling. Cortez consistently had a hang time of 4.0 seconds.

  • DT Kevin Williams leads all NFL defensive tackles in sacks with six. "Sometimes, he's a man among boys," said Vikings defensive line coach Brian Baker.

  • DT Chris Hovan's well-publicized feud with Packers QB Brett Favre has died down completely since training camp 2003. Hovan's play has diminished since 2002, and he doesn't talk to the media as much as he used to. His mood is much more subdued. In eight games against the Packers, Hovan has 32 tackles, 11 QB hurries, one fumble recovery and two passes defensed.

  • The Vikings' NFL record for consecutive games with at least 300 yards of offense ended at 36. The Colts held them to 292.

  • RB Onterrio Smith has regained his starting job one week after returning from a four-game drug suspension. The Vikings started the Colts game with Smith and Michael Bennett in the backfield together. A botched snap that resulted in a 28-yard loss to the Vikings' 6-yard line ruined whatever play the Vikings had planned for that formation. Tice said each of his backs will have a role but added that Smith will be the starter against the Packers. "I think he's earned the right to be the starter," Tice said. "We're going to have a role for everybody. Michael played well against the Colts. Onterrio played super. Moe (Williams) played super."

  • The RCA Dome was so loud at the start of the game, C Matt Birk couldn't hear QB Daunte Culpepper, who was under center at the time. Birk snapped the ball a split second late. Culpepper closed his hands too early and the ball squirted through piles of players for a 28-yard loss before LT Bryant McKinnie fell on it at the Vikings' 6. "That's OK," said Birk, who was miked for the game by MNF. "We always win when I botch a snap."

    --RB Mewelde Moore is still hobbled by a sprained left ankle. He was held out of a portion of Wednesday's practice.

  • CB Antoine Winfield, by far the team's best tackler, has 68 tackles, nine more than any other Viking. His total of 51 solo tackles is nine more than any other Viking. Winfield also has 10 special teams tackles, second-most on the team. "Good things come in small packages," coach Mike Tice said of the 5-9, 185-pound Winfield.

  • OL Shannon Snee was signed to the practice squad.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think by any means last year is creeping into our minds, because we have a different team." — QB Daunte Culpepper, talking about whether the Vikings are worried about repeating last year's collapse. The Vikings went 3-7 after last year's 6-0 start. They're 0-2 since a 5-1 start this season.

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