He may be the shortest player on the team, but as the Vikings prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the prospect of not having Antoine Winfield in the lineup could present the biggest void of losing any player – including Brett Favre, Jared Allen and Adrian Peterson.
Winfield is not only the Vikings top cover cornerback, but he is regarded as one of – if not the best – run-defending CB in the league. He plays with ferocity and isn't shy about dropping his head against players who have 50 pounds or more on him and laying a lick typically reserved for linebackers or safeties.
Winfield is typically surrounded by media members on Wednesdays as the Vikings start their week of preparation for their next opponent. But he was nowhere to be seen during the open locker room Wednesday and didn't practice. This continued a trend that has happened since shortly after he suffered a sprained foot in the first half of Sunday's 33-31 win over Baltimore. He declined to answer many questions about the injury in the locker room following the game or Monday when he was spotted at Winter Park wearing a walking boot on his right foot.
So how will the Vikings fare against the suddenly pass-happy Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday? Not even the players know for sure.
"I don't know," defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "We're going to find out on Sunday. If he ain't playing, everybody else is going to have to step up."
It is the backup players – Karl Paymah, Benny Sapp and Asher Allen – that will likely be asked to pick up the slack. But anyone who knows the value of Winfield to the Vikings defense or saw the fourth quarter of the Vikings game with the Ravens understands that he can't fully be replaced.
"Any time you lose a Pro Bowl guy that's as consistent and as much of a playmaker as he is, it's going to be tough to replace – no doubt about it," linebacker Ben Leber said. "That's the name of the game. That is why we concentrate so much on depth. Those backup guys are going to have to step up and fill his shoes."
Some of that onus will fall on Sapp. When he was signed as a free agent last year, one of his selling points was experience in his four years with Kansas City (he started six games there). He said players like he, Paymah and Allen aren't feeling any additional heat for being the players that will fill in for Winfield if he can't go Sunday. Like understudies in Broadway plays, the show must go on even if the star is unavailable and Winfield's understudies need to be ready when the curtain rises at noon Central Sunday.
"It's no pressure, because we're expected to step up," Sapp said. "It's our job. This is what we do. The rest of us have to prepare for everything and show why we're on this team and why the coaches can depend on us. Injuries are part of this game. It doesn't stop when a quarterback goes out or a running back goes out or a cornerback goes out. You have other people there for a reason and we are going to have to show why we're here on Sunday if (Winfield) can't go."
For his part, Winfield is still doing the little things that have made him a team leader. He's in all the study sessions and position meetings. He's a magnet in the locker room for the younger players. If not for the walking boot, it would be hard to tell that Winfield isn't fully expecting to be on the field Sunday against the high-octane Steelers passing attack.
"Antoine is in the film room all the time and still taking notes," Griffin said. "He's around. He's not going anywhere. He's preparing as if he's going to play. We're all working to get the winning edge. That's what Coach Joe Woods has on the board – get the winning edge by getting all the notes we can."
For the rest of the cornerbacks, however, they are coming into practice this week with the expectation that they have to raise their own bar higher in the event Winfield can't play. Their roles will likely all be expanded and they're ready for the challenge the likes of Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller can bring.
"I'm ready to do whatever is asked of me," Sapp said. "Those of us who aren't in the starting lineup have to be ready to respond to do whatever is asked of them – whether it's to be out there for 50 plays, 10 plays or on special teams. We're not going to change what we do if Antoine isn't out there. It will just be the call to the rest of us that we need to bring our ‘A' game in order to get the win."
We likely won't know for sure if Winfield can play until Sunday, although the early projections are that he will be out. Whether No. 26 is in the lineup or not, the Vikings aren't going to change what has helped get the team off to a 6-0 start.
"We're going to take the same approach," Griffin said. "If one guy goes down, the next guy steps up. We drafted Asher Allen and have Karl Paymah, Benny Sapp and myself. We have guys who can play. We're all talented. We just need to have a great week of practice and play (technically sound) football. If we do that, we should be fine – whether (Winfield) can play or not."
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