There was no shortage of concern last month when Antoine Winfield went down in the first half of the Vikings game with the Baltimore Ravens. With all the depth the Vikings have at different positions, experienced cornerback depth was a concern. With Winfield out of the lineup, three Vikings cornerbacks were expected to step up – Karl Paymah, Benny Sapp and rookie Asher Allen.
While it is impossible to replace a Pro Bowl talent like Winfield, a player who does so many things right, the Vikings have more than just made do. With Winfield expected back in the starting lineup Sunday against Chicago (he's officially listed as questionable), all three will be pushed back a notch on the depth chart. But, in a strange way, the Vikings may be better in the long-term by having Winfield on the shelf for a month. It has forced the backups to step into the spotlight.
Starter Cedric Griffin said the team wasn't as panicky as the fans and media were when Winfield was lost to a foot injury. He and his teammates had already seen what the trio of backups could do. It was now time for everyone to see it.
"It's been great for Asher and Benny and Karl Paymah to step up and even myself to step up while Antoine has been down," Griffin said. "It's been huge for us. Every day in practice they've been doing a great job – even when Antoine was playing. Since Antoine is coming back, all the guys can go out and contribute and make plays for us. It's been wonderful."
The biggest jump has been for Allen, who has seen his first significant action with the defense over the past four games. He said that there was pride and a little nervousness among the D-backs – all of which were looking to keep the secondary play at a high level even without its veteran leader.
"When Antoine went down, we didn't want to drop our play down a notch," Allen said. "I think Benny, Karl and myself have done a good job of just holding down the defense while Antoine was out."
For Allen, it has been an apprenticeship by fire. In the four games that Winfield has missed, he has had to go against highly regarded quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Hasselbeck – quarterbacks who embrace the sight of a rookie in the secondary. He said he found out almost immediately that mistakes against players like that can kill you.
"You learn really quick that a lot of the things you may have done in college and got away with, you don't get away with here," Allen said. "Having to play against guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Rodgers – guys who know what they're doing – can only make you better down the line."
When Winfield first went down, Sapp was the first to step in for him. While Paymah and Allen have both worked their way on the field as well, Sapp said that backups always practice as if they're going to start because, in the violent world of the NFL, a backup can become a starter in the blink of an eye.
"It has showed what kind of depth we have," Sapp said of the aftermath of the Winfield injury. "Now that we have him back, the rotation will be different, because he is a great player and we all have a lot of respect for him. We came in when we were needed. When one man goes down, somebody else has to step up. I think we showed we could all do a good job."
Winfield's injury opened an opportunity for Paymah, a former Denver Bronco signed in the offseason. He has accounted well for himself and proved something to his coaches. He was quick to point out that, while nobody wants to see a valued member of the team being hurt, one man's injury is another man's opportunity.
"Those are situations you look forward to – stepping in and showing what you've got," Paymah said. "It's good that we showed that we could step in and keep the train going."
With Winfield's return, the Vikings defense will be back at full strength. But, in many ways, it may actually be stronger, because there are fewer question marks about putting in players like Sapp, Paymah and Allen in key situations. They've earned their stripes while Winfield has been out and will return to a state of readiness to step back in if called upon.
"You never know what's going to happen down the road," Paymah said. "It's a long season and we're on a mission. We have big plans and we have many more games to go if our goal comes true. You never know what's going to happen. Injuries happen all the time. Now we know that guys can step up and fill in when they're needed. That can only make us better."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Backup cornerbacks proved themselves
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