Cornerback Confidence Growing

Three of the Minnesota Vikings' top four cornerbacks have less than two years of NFL experience, but they have been learning on the job and gaining confidence along the way. See what two veteran defensive backs and two of the young cornerbacks had to say about their progress. Plus, get the final injury report of the week for the Vikings and 49ers.

The Vikings pass defense continues to be ranked last in the league, but the young contingent of cornerbacks aren't about to cower to the rankings.

Cedric Griffin, the team's 2006 second-round draft pick, is quick to point out how unbalanced teams have been in attacking the Vikings. Opponents have gained 175 first downs passing and only 48 rushing against the league's best run defense. The opposition has also rushed 283 times compared to 496 passing attempt.

Through it all, the Vikings have fielded Antoine Winfield as their veteran starting cornerback and three young cornerbacks playing beside and behind him. Griffin is starting opposite Winfield. Behind them are rookie third-round pick Marcus McCauley and 2006 rookie free agent Charles Gordon.

"The league is all about confidence," veteran safety Dwight Smith said. "When you're at this level and everybody's talent is about the same, it's all about confidence. (The young corners) have been getting every week, more and more confident. Once it's all said and they get that swagger and that chip you need to carry on your shoulder, then they'll be alright."

Griffin went through his rookie trials last year. He originally started the season behind Winfield and Fred Smoot, but when he suffered a death in the family, Griffin filled in as a starter and played too well to get demoted when Smoot returned full-time from his family tragedy and injuries.

"Last year, I got a lot of playing time, so (I got) a feel of the receivers, a feel for my teammates and getting a feel of opponents' offenses and seeing what NFL receivers have to offer," Griffin said. "Last year played crucial for me, but this year I guess my confidence has grown because I had to step up to a leadership role because 'Toine (Winfield) was down a little bit. I had to step up my tackling skills, my covering skills. Once you do a good job of covering guys throughout the season, your confidence goes up a little bit."

Griffin has started every game this season and, with Winfield struggling with a hamstring injury that forced to him out of action in 4 ½ of the last five games, Griffin felt more like a leader than a still-green second-year player.

McCauley has taken a similar path. He started the season rotating with Gordon as the nickel back when defending three-receiver offensive sets, but for a number of reasons McCauley has been seeing increased action. Earlier in the season, he started three of the first seven games as a nickel back when the opposition opened with three receivers. But with Winfield not starting four of the last five games, that role went to McCauley.

After being demoted in his senior season at Fresno State and dropping from a projected first-round draft pick after his junior season to a third-round pick of the Vikings in 2007, McCauley is feeling more comfortable with each game that passes.

"The way things went for me in college last year, I definitely came in with something to prove. After training camp, I felt like I showed people I belong," McCauley said. "It was just going from training camp to the actual game, it took me a little time to get acclimated to that. I didn't have time like most rookies to sit and watch. I was out there the second play of the first game. It was all trial by fire, but I feel like I've gained confidence from the players and the coaches starting these last couple of games."

He said it helped to play the entire games when Winfield was standing on the sidelines with his hamstring injury, but he was quick to credit the veteran receiver for reinforcing the rookie's good plays with encouragement on the sidelines.

"(The young cornerbacks) are playing better and taking the coaching," Winfield said. "(Defensive backs coach) Joe Woods is keeping them on the sideline when the offense is on the field, going through drills and going through techniques. Not giving up big plays, and that's key, especially since guys are going to throw the ball at them. But they never lost confidence in their ability.

"(McCauley) didn't really know what to expect, but over the weeks he has a lot of confidence just going out there and trying to make plays."

McCauley essentially agreed with that assessment.

"I've learned to trust myself a lot more," he said. "Physically, it's obvious that I should be out there, but this game is more mental than physical. Everybody's good at this level, but do you have that mental edge? Can you see things before they happen, especially at this position?"

McCauley believes he's made stride in his conditioning and his study habits since the beginning of the season. He may have had more questions earlier in the year, but he's more willing to ask the questions now.

"As a young guy, you come in here thinking you know everything. Now I realize that it's OK to ask questions or just speak your mind. Now, if I see something I speak up on it and I take criticism in stride. Before I was like, they're just trying to mess with me because I'm a rookie. Now I see it as they're just trying to get you better because they need me out there and they need me to help this team win."

Griffin said he believes McCauley was fresher at the beginning of the season, but he also said he believes McCauley might be playing better than Griffin was in a similar situation last year as a rookie.

McCauley thinks he has improved enough that his teammates have stopped worrying about having a rookie out there with them. He didn't necessarily think that coverages shifted to help him, but he did think that his teammates knew he was still learning.

"Just the position I play, they say you're out on an island. Then me being a rookie, that's like two red flags – a corner and a rookie."

Still, the veteran defensive backs believe the young cornerbacks are gaining confidence as their young professional careers progress. And confidence is a necessary trait for the position.

Said Smith: "Some get it quicker than others, some never get it. That's why you see some guys don't last in the league. But that's what it's about, and the last couple of weeks you can see their confidence growing – both of them, Ced and Marcus."

"Things look bright for the future," McCauley said.

INJURY UPDATE

On the injury front, DE Erasmus James is out, as he will be placed on injured reserve with another ACL injury. S Mike Doss (hamstring) and S Tank Williams (knee) are both doubtful after missing all three practices this week. OL Artis Hicks (back), linebacker E.J. Henderson (illness) and WR Troy Williamson (concussion) are questionable. DT Spencer Johnson (groin), RB Adrian Peterson (knee), LB Dontarrious Thomas (groin) and CB Antoine Winfield (hamstring) are probable.

For the San Francisco 49ers, CB Marcus Hudson (knee) is out. CB Shawntae Spencer (quad) is doubtful. WR Arnaz Battle (ankle), Mark Roman and QB Alex Smith (shoulder/forearm) are questionable. RB Frank Gore (ankle), WR Jason Hill (groin), QB Shaun Hill (finger), LB Derek Smith (groin) and CB Donald Strickland (knee) are probable.


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