As if facing the Michael Vick-led Atlanta offense wasn't tough enough, the Vikings defense will go into Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome with several injury concerns.
The list includes defensive ends Lance Johnstone (shoulder) and Kenechi Udeze (knee), free safety Darren Sharper (knee) and linebackers E.J. Henderson (ankle), Sam Cowart (knee) and Dontarrious Thomas (hamstring).
And that doesn't even include nickel back Brian Williams (knee), who won't play, or backup safety Willie Offord, whose season came to an end Sunday when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
On Thursday, Udeze was downgraded from questionable to doubtful on the injury report and on Friday it was learned he'll have surgery next week, putting him out for Sunday. Johnstone also is out, meaning the Vikings stand to be seriously shorthanded on the line Sunday. Although Udeze is a starter, Johnstone's loss stands to be just as significant because he is arguably the Vikings' best pass rusher and leads the team with two sacks.
Sharper remains questionable but it would not be surprising if the veteran rested the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee for a second consecutive week. The Vikings have a bye following in Week 5, meaning he would get three weeks to heal.
Sharper's absence would mean veteran cornerback turned safety Ken Irvin likely would start along with strong safety Corey Chavous. Offord started alongside Chavous last Sunday against the Saints.
On the line, first-round draft pick Erasmus James should see substantial playing time along with backup tackle Spencer Johnson. Johnson also can play end and would likely be the starter.
James has gotten increased action in the past two games after sitting out the opener because of virus-like symptoms.
"He's really starting to come on," coach Mike Tice said of James. "He is practicing faster. He seems to be walking around with good body language and a smile on his face. I think he is starting to get his legs underneath him."
The news is better at linebacker. Henderson, who missed last Sunday's game, took part in all drills during Thursday's practice. Cowart and Thomas also will play, meaning the starting trio of Henderson (weak side), Cowart (middle) and Napoleon Harris (strong side) will be intact. Thomas plays in passing situations, so his presence also is key.
Coach Jim Mora would love for Atlanta fans to see the Jason Webster who worked efficiently at cornerback from 2000-02 in San Francisco.
Webster has played his entire career for Mora, the former 49ers defensive coordinator who took charge of the Falcons in January 2004. Unfortunately, a variety of injuries caused Webster to make only two starts in 2003, a season in which he played just five games.
In his first season with Atlanta last year, Webster made just nine starts after the Falcons gave him a $7 million signing bonus two months after Mora arrived. Still, the former Texas A&M standout, whom San Francisco drafted in the second round of 2000, finished with a team-high 10 passes defended.
"He worked hard this off-season to not get injured, and you can't control some things that happen," Mora said. "He'll have a good year for us. He's a good player, a tough kid. I just feel bad that people haven't gotten to see it yet like I got to see it for three or four years."
Though he always looks his audience squarely in the eye and speaks with sincerity, Webster rarely offers more than stock quotes, so it's hard to understand what's really affecting him underneath the surface. What hurts as much as anything, according to Mora, is playing as well as Webster did at Seattle, where he drilled Shaun Alexander and batted a pass away from Bobby Engram on consecutive third-quarter plays, only to return home with a sore knee.
Webster missed his seventh regular-season game in last week's win at Buffalo. With Kevin Mathis out for the season and Allen Rossum nursing a tweaked hamstring, Christian Morton started at Webster's spot on the right side.
"There's no question that Jason's a tough kid," Mora said. "Up until last year he only had minor injuries, he didn't have anything that kept him out a long time. As a matter of fact, in his whole college career and through his first three years in the league, he never missed a game.
"He had some unfortunate things happen to him and you just try and encourage him along. It's hard on him. He's a competitor and he doesn't like to feel like he's letting his team or his teammates down. He does feel that way, I know he does. He's of strong faith and I'm sure that's how he's getting through it. That's Jason. He's a pretty spiritual guy."