As the only team in the NFL without a player on injured reserve, the Vikings would seem to have an opportunity to stick with mainly their starters and not deviate much. But that hasn't been the case.
Only two players on the Vikings' 53-man roster haven't played this season. One of them is center Jon Cooper, who was signed to the active roster one month into the season, and the other is third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who as a game-day inactive can only play if Brett Favre and Tarvaris Jackson are both out of the game.
While the defensive linemen typically have a regular rotation of players to keep fresh, backup defensive backs don't often get a chance to play much on defense. With some of the leads the Vikings have been taking of late, there has been more opportunity for them to get some regular-season action.
"That is gratifying and it gives your locker room a little more juice, from the standpoint that they know they all got a chance to go if they show up and do well," Childress said.
The backup cornerbacks have gotten a chance to play more because Antoine Winfield has been out the last four games with a foot injury, leading to Benny Sapp and Karl Paymah making starts in the base and nickel defenses. Childress said those backups haven't just weathered the storm while missing a Pro Bowler like Winfield, they have performed well.
"I think weather means that you are just holding on, surviving. I think that they have really embraced it," Childress said. "I think that it's the old opportunity knocks and I have seen those guys grab hold of it and really get a chance to compete."
Safety Eric Frampton has been impressed with what rookie Asher Allen has been able to accomplish in such a short time. The 2009 third-round draft choice was inactive for the first six games of the season, but Winfield's injury was Allen's opportunity.
"Even though he was inactive, he's always been a really hard worker," Frampton said of Allen. "He understands the defense better than a lot of guys on the team in terms of not just the cornerback position, but the linebackers, the defensive scheme, just things where he really has a great feel for route combinations that the other team is trying to do. He's been on it. I've watched him specifically from the beginning of the season until now. Even though he's been inactive, he just pays a lot of attention to details. It's no surprise to me that he's doing really well."
Allen has been averaging about 15 plays per game over the last four contests, according to Pro Football Focus, and on Sunday Allen had the first interception of his young career. While most of his snaps have come in nickel situations, he was able to gain more playing time in the fourth quarter with the Vikings sporting a big lead.
Childress was impressed that Allen made that interception playing right corner, not his usual nickel spot or outside at left corner.
"I think they just embraced it. Where Asher used to be sitting in my office, he used to be one of those eight guys (deactivated)," Childress said. "He was going to be a guy that was down – and he was down about being down – but I just promised him that somewhere along the line opportunity is going to knock. If you feel like you are getting in the copilot seat, if you feel like you are kind of riding along and you don't keep that mental edge, you are going to snooze at the wrong time and somebody is going to say that you're in. I think those guys have done a really good job of attacking that thing."
Frampton said Allen is a quick study, which may be a product of coming from a solid college football program like Georgia.
"I think he's come in with that sort of knowledge and I don't know if they do it a little different in Georgia in terms of coaching," Frampton said. "I've learned a lot since I've been here and his learning curve is way up there. I don't know where he got it, but he came in here and he picked up the terminology really fast because it differs team to team. He picked it up really fast and applied it. He's doing great."
The cornerbacks haven't been the only defensive backs to benefit from increased playing time. For the last six games, all five safeties the Vikings carry on their 53-man roster have been active. Some of that has to do with the backup safeties being a valuable part of special teams, but it goes beyond that, according to Childress.
"For us to have safeties up, those guys are very viable guys not only in the kicking game. I think Jamarca Sanford jumped in and played eight snaps. Husain Abdullah jumps in and he trains at corner, at safety, at nickel and then is a very good special teams player," Childress said. "So I don't know a lot of teams that if you look through game-day deactivations that are carrying five up. Most people carry three up. I don't think that you get locked into any one set of numbers that you have to have this many guys up. You want to bring the guys up that are productive and doing things."
In addition to Allen, another rookie made a positive impression on Sunday. Seventh-round draft pick Jamarca Sanford created a big play against Seattle when he stripped kick returner Ben Obomanu of the ball during a kick return, which led to the Vikings' third touchdown in the second quarter as they took a 21-0 lead.
"For our guys to be able to strip one and take it away there on a short field was huge," Childress said.
Sanford was inactive for two of the first four games this year, but he has played in each of the last six games. Frampton said Sanford really understands his role on special teams.
"I think he's made the biggest strides in just understanding special teams, his job and the technicality of special teams. He's done a great job," Frampton said. "As far as defense goes, the coaches don't make it super hard to pick up or understand. It's one of those things that you can't really measure. The more experience, there are things that you learn that nobody can teach you. It's his first year. He's doing great though. In the future he's going to learn a lot more and gain a little bit more experience."
Childress is seeing and boasting the benefits of experience for his backups.
"The experiential factor is huge to me," he said. "You see those guys grow and they are vying during the work week here to be one of those 45, contributing in any way that they can."
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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