NOTEBOOK: Replacements Make Their Case

Two Vikings, one on offense and one on defense, are making their case to be starters even as their competition is close to being ready for full-time action again. See what the players and coach have to say about the possibilities. Plus, find out how the Vikings took an aggressive Ram out of his game, and we take a look at the playoff possibilities after a six-game winning streak.

The replacements are giving head coach Mike Tice cause for pause.

Two Vikings, cornerback Brian Williams on defense and running back Michael Bennett on offense, were originally injury substitutions, but Williams' performance and Mewelde Moore's inability to stay healthy may keep Williams and Bennett in the lineup for the foreseeable future.

Williams had more yards on interception returns – 31 – than all but one Vikings wideout had on offense Sunday. The Vikings' defensive backs combined for more interceptions – five – than any one Vikings receiver had on offense.

Yes, Minnesota's defensive backfield is on a roll and playing a big role in the team's success, and Williams has become as hot as anyone after a two-interception performance against the St. Louis Rams Sunday. Truth is, Williams has been one of the most consistent defensive backs for the Vikings all season, and that's saying something considering Darren Sharper's NFC-leading eight interceptions and Antoine Winfield's team-leading 85 tackles. Williams has been covering with aplomb, blitzing with authority and doing everything he can to remain in the starting lineup.

"Brian Williams has really proven that he is a starting corner, a dominating corner and a guy who makes plays," Sharper said. "At the beginning of the season, he might not admit it, but he was a little disappointed when we brought in Fred (Smoot), but he just kept chugging along and you can see that's paying off for him right now."

Williams' line for Sunday read six tackles, two interceptions, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery.

"I thought Brian Williams was brilliant. It might have been the best game he's played since he's been with us; if not the best, one of the best," Tice said.

Williams, in his fourth year in the league, disagreed with the superlative, calling a three-interception, one-touchdown game the best of his career, but he said he believes he deserves to continue being the starter.

"I definitely think so," Williams said. "I've been the starter for the past three years. Things happen in the offseason, who knows? We've got a lot of good guys and depth. I think it's a good thing."

Smoot played as the team's nickel back in his first action in a month as he makes his way back from a shoulder injury. He elected to not wear a protective sleeve to help with his shoulder injury, saying it didn't allow him to breath, according to Tice.

Despite an interception from Smoot as well, Tice didn't disagree with Williams' assessment of his starting ability, with Tice saying he didn't want to disrupt the six-game winning streak the Vikings are on.

"I have no decision to make," Tice said regarding the cornerback position. "We'll see how it goes. Fred went into the injury as our starting corner and right now Brian is playing very, very well. I don't see what decision there is that needs to be made. There's the old adage, ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' but we'll see."

Smoot and Williams were part of a five-interception performance for the Vikings, as Antoine Winfield and Sharper also had picks. The Vikings now have 17 interceptions in their last six games, and Winfield has a career-high four of them this season.

"I think Sharper and (safety Corey) Chavous do a good job of disguising coverages. That's where quarterbacks get their reads from, the safeties," Williams said. "Me, Antoine and Smoot can play little games, too. I think we all did a good job."

The Vikings will also be faced with an interesting decision on the offensive side of the ball.

For the second consecutive game, Bennett was the workhorse running back and did a decent, not spectacular, job. Bennett gained 70 yards on 18 carries, but the running game seemed to irk Tice.

"We're working the clock to make first downs, and we weren't able for a couple of drives there to make first downs, and that really bothered me a little bit," Tice said. "It's not like we're not trying to make them; we certainly don't want to go into a shell."

In the second half, after scoring touchdowns on consecutive drives in the third quarter, the Vikings offense had four consecutive drives of less than five plays.

Bennett was able to carry the load Sunday for the Vikings because of a quad injury Moore suffered late last week in practice. Moore still played an important role on punt returns, but Tice clearly read Moore's body language as an apparent lack of interest in being involved with the offense.

"When you look on the bench and you turn around and you bump into a guy, that's a guy that wants to go in the game," Tice said. "When you turn around on the bench and you can't find the guy, that's a guy that doesn't want to go in the game."

Last week against Detroit, Bennett rushed 22 times for 79 yards. This week was the fifth time this year he received the majority of the carries and the fourth time he rushed more than 10 times.

"Do I look washed up?" Bennett asked. "You know, it's all about opportunities. I've been doing this for five years now. People are going to have their opinion and whatever their opinion is, that's how it will be. But, I still know what type of player I am. I'm definitely a starter in this league."

Brian Williams knows how Bennett feels.

OF LITTLE CONCERN

The Vikings came into Sunday's game vowing that St. Louis defensive end Leonard Little – a thorn in the Vikings' side in past meetings – wouldn't be a game changer.

Little had four tackles but no sacks. His tackles were all part of the plan to limit his aggressiveness in the pass rush.

"We ran at him a bunch, and we tried to run some reverses back to him just to keep him from chasing from the backside," Tice said. "Our game plan really started Monday making sure number 91 wasn't going to be an impact player (Sunday), and I thought that was a nice job by the coaches."

It was. The Vikings' two biggest deep threats – Koren Robinson and Troy Williamson – combined for three rushes on end-arounds as part of the strategy. Williamson's one end-around went for 14 yards and a first down. Robinson's two rushes netted 14 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown to open the scoring.

"He did a great job as far as following his blocks," quarterback Brad Johnson said of Robinson's touchdown run. "He did a great job for 13 yards. Number one, he gets the first down and then keeping his feet alive to score. So that was a big play for us, especially for as potent as our offense can be at times."

"It was a new play put in this week," Robinson said. "I guess they have seen my ability to run with the ball after I get it in my hands and they put it in. It was looking good in practice, so more than likely they were going to call it today and they called it – touchdown."

It was the first rushing touchdown of Robinson's career, and he added an important 15-yard reception on a slant pattern. On that play, Johnson was pressured and hit, and the pass floated high like a wounded jump shot. Robinson continued to track the ball and made the first-down reception, averting what could have been an interception.

Robinson also added a 61-yard kickoff return that set up a second-quarter field goal.

Robinson is doing it all lately in his first year as a Viking after being released from the Seahawks during the offseason. His release followed a number of personal struggles, including alcohol abuse.

"I feel more there mentally," Robinson said of his life and career now. "I feel like I am more mature. I feel like I am whole now."

"It's definitely good to see him getting back and getting his life back on track," said Robinson's college friend, Brian Williams, who was a big influence on Tice calling Robinson at the end of his 28-day treatment program this summer. "Whatever he went through, I really don't know. But it's good to see him get back on track. It's a good thing to me because we were good friends in college and we still are today."

PLAYOFF PRESSURE

With their win over the Rams and Chicago's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Vikings (8-5) gained a game on the Bears (9-4) in the NFC North, but Minnesota still trails Chicago by a game and would still be out of the playoffs if they started today. The Vikings are currently in seventh place in the six-team NFC playoff chase. If Atlanta beats New Orleans tonight, the Vikings would drop back to eighth place because Atlanta holds the head-to-head tie-breaker over Minnesota.

Winning the division might be the easiest route to the playoffs since the Vikings would lose on tie-breakers to Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Carolina in the wild-card competition.

The Bears play Atlanta, Green Bay and Minnesota in their final three games, while the Vikings play Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago. Because the Vikings are a game behind Chicago and the Bears currently have better division and conference records, and have a win against the Vikings, that puts pressure on the Vikings to win their remaining three games and have Chicago lose one of its next two.

"We have 20 days to make it happen, nine practices and three games," Johnson said. "We have done our part as far as getting ourselves out of a deep hole. … If we win out, then obviously we should be in there, but we can't worry about it over the next three weeks," Johnson said.

DEACTIVATIONS

There were no major surprises on either team's deactivation list, as the Vikings dressed all of their offensive lineman and wide receivers, as expected.

The Vikings deactivated QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Chris Kluwe, RB Adimchinobe Echemandu, CB Ukee Dozier, LB Heath Farwell, TE Jeff Dugan, TE Richard Angulo and DT Kevin Williams.

The Rams deactivated QBs Marc Bulger and Jeff Smoker, CB Dwight Anderson, CB Travis Fisher, RB Aveion Cason, OL Ben Noll, T Alex Barron and DT Brian Howard. Ryan Tucker started in place of Alex Barron for the Rams.



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