The Vikings' cornerback corps could become much younger – and much less experienced – when facing the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday.
Antoine Winfield was diagnosed with a sprained foot, leaving a caravan of questions about who might play where if needed. On Sunday, Winfield's sprain took him out of the game early in the second quarter, leaving first-year Viking Karl Paymah playing left cornerback.
Paymah said on Monday that he always prepares as if he'll play.
"That's my mentality every game. Coming into the season, coming to this team, you've got to practice like you're going to start, like you're going to be the guy because you never know," he said. "You're one play away, and this game came and I was just fortunate enough to come in there and help the team get the win. That's my mentality this week coming up, too. Just practice and if you get the opportunity just run with it."
For a while, the Vikings were also without their starting nickel back, Benny Sapp, leaving backup safety Husain Abdullah to fill that role for what Childress said was nine
"good" plays. Sapp returned to the game after being evaluated for a possible concussion.
He said on Monday he was feeling "a little slow" but that he was fine.
Sapp usually plays the slot receiver in nickel situations, but he said he could play outside if needed.
"It's just a coach's decision and whatever decision … you know, K.P. (Paymah) is the guy right now I guess," Sapp said. "However it goes, we'll just keep practicing. However it goes, either one of us has to just step up and play football."
With Paymah filling in for Winfield at left cornerback and a less-than-full-strength Sapp at nickel, the Vikings allowed Ravens second-year quarterback to throw for 196 yards passing in the fourth quarter, as Baltimore put up 21 points in the final period and briefly erased a 17-point deficit to take a lead.
If Winfield isn't able to play, another possibility might be rookie Asher Allen, who was drafted in the third round. The Vikings had good offseason reviews for Allen, but he has been inactive for each of the six games and therefore wasn't available Sunday when the cornerback position was getting dreadfully thin.
Allen said it has been an adjustment to not play in the NFL after being a star at Georgia.
"Everybody starts different. Some people are starters the whole time and they fall off or don't play at all and then end up becoming really, really good," Allen said. "Me personally, I just keep grinding and keep focusing on what I've got to do. Just prepare myself for every week being the week (I get to play). Knowing that when I go out there I'm going to execute."
Sapp said Allen is progressing in his rookie season and would be versatile enough to outside at cornerback or inside in nickel situations. In a three-year career at Georgia, Allen started 24 games and was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award and quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy, honors given to the nation's top defensive backs.
"He's a great young guy. He's come to work every day to work. He studies. He has all the characteristics of a young guy that's ready to play," Sapp said. "Ash, he can come in and play anywhere. … He'll be up for the challenge if it comes to him."
Allen said his deactivations to date have been a matter of numbers. The Vikings have 53 players on their active roster but can only make 45 of them active on game days.
"It's hard by nature for those guys that obviously have started in college to come in here and be one of those deactivated guys," Vikings coach Brad Childress said of Allen. "He's sat in my office here a couple times, and he'll do whatever (to get on the field). And obviously if he was to get on the field or to get up, he'd have a significant role in special teams, like most of those defensive backs and backup defensive backs. I haven't seen any kind of back steps from him at all, aside from the standpoint that he doesn't have a great deal of experience being on the field."
But even without playing, Allen said he has learned some tricks of the trade from Winfield.
"You're here with Antoine Winfield. What can't you learn, really? Just how he prepares and how he works and his work ethic and things like that, I think that's something that anybody would be able to learn," Allen said.
"… If coach wants to put me outside, he can do that, if when wants to put me inside, just whatever's best for the team I'll be doing it."
If Winfield's injury were more serious, the Vikings might have considered tapping into the trade market. The league's trading deadline is today at 3 p.m. Central, but with a 6-0 record they appear to be an unlikely candidate to unload a player that contributes regularly, and as long as Winfield's injury isn't a season-ending variety, they probably wouldn't have to panic and give up a lot to obtain a starting cornerback.
The Vikings could try to fill the void on the free-agent market as well, but most of the familiar names there are past their prime, with players like Mike McKenzie, Chris McAlister, Patrick Surtain and Ty Law. Also available once again is former third-round draft pick Marcus McCauley, who is familiar with the Vikings' system after spending two years in Minnesota before being released prior to the start of this season. He spent three weeks this season with the Detroit Lions before his release at the end of last month, and he had a workout last week with the Philadelphia Eagles, according to Scout.com's Adam Caplan.
The Vikings have options to fill the potential hole left by Winfield, but none of them are as enticing as him making a speedy recovery and being able to play.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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