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The Vikings' return game has practically been gutted in training camp, forcing players who have never been return men to give it a try.

Coaches will tell you that to be successful, teams must excel in all three aspects of the game -- offense, defense and special teams. While the Vikings have rarely committed to one player to be a return specialist, injuries have forced the team to take a patchwork approach to the return aspect of the game.

Initially, the plan was to have Mewelde Moore return both kicks and punts, but a knee injury has sidelined him. Koren Robinson, who had been taken off of kick return duties because of his role as a starting wide receiver, is also out of the mix. Troy Williamson was given a shot last Monday, but he fumbled the opening kickoff and wasn't given another chance after that. His replacement, Kevin Kasper, was impressive Monday, averaging more than 30 yards per return. But he injured his ankle and was wearing a walking boot Friday as the team departed for Pittsburgh.

So where does that leave the Vikings? Between a rock and a hard place. Five different players were used in kick and punt return duties during the team's final special teams practice at training camp, including only two players who are locks to make the final 53-man roster -- Travis Taylor and Ciatrick Fason.

However, there's a problem as far as that goes. Taylor has never returned kicks and Fason hasn't done it since high school. That doesn't bode well for a team that needs to be sharp in all facets of the game.

It will be interesting to see who the Vikings throw out in the return game tonight and how effective they will be. If the Vikings intend to be successful in 2006, having a strong return game will be critical and, for the time being, anyone with any experience isn't available to do it.

* Bryant McKinnie is still wearing the oversized club on his left hand to protect a broken bone in his middle finger, but he said Thursday he expects to have the club off by the time the regular season gets underway.
* The Vikings plan to use just three quarterbacks tonight, which means J.T. O'Sullivan isn't expected to play at all.
* There has been no change to the status of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. He isn't expected to play with ligament damage to his throwing thumb, but remains listed as questionable for the Steelers on their injury report.

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