Sheppard gets tough initiation in defense

Lito Sheppard will receive a strong test on Thursday. Not only is he expected to start at cornerback against a multi-receiver offense like the Saints, it's Sheppard's first experience with the Vikings' Cover-2 defensive style. Sheppard talked about the challenges ahead.

If one was armed with the knowledge that an opponent was going to enter a game with only three healthy cornerbacks, even then only a handful of quarterbacks would have the experience, skill and personnel to attack such a lack of depth. Fortunately for the Vikings, Brett Favre is one of those fingers on the proverbial hand. Unfortunately for the Vikings, so is Drew Brees.

As the Vikings head into New Orleans Thursday to open the 2010 regular season, they do so with only three cornerbacks currently on the active roster expected to suit up. Rookie Chris Cook (knee) hasn't practiced this week and starter Cedric Griffin (knee) has only recently started practicing and, by multiple accounts, most of it wasn't live action. That leaves only three healthy cornerbacks to face the pass-happy Saints offense – veterans Antoine Winfield and Lito Sheppard and second-year pro Asher Allen.

With the number of multi-receiver sets the Saints run, all of three of them are expected to be on the field a lot Thursday and Sheppard said that their conditioning the last couple of weeks has been designed with the thought in mind that they all will be on the field for inordinate amount of time.

"We've been getting in shape for this game because we know we have to," Sheppard said with a chuckle. "We know what we have going into this game with our secondary and we know that their offense on built around Drew Brees and the passing game. We have to prepare for a worst-case scenario and we're ready to do our business however we have to."

In some cases, that could include bringing a safety down to cover a receiver.

What makes the Saints offense so potent is that they can attack weaknesses of opponents in their passing game. If an opponent has a weakness at cover linebackers, they have multiple tight ends and running backs to throw to. If they see a weakness in the secondary, they can expose that by throwing deep to a quartet of talented receivers. It's clear the Saints realize the Vikings are going to be shorthanded at cornerback, so Sheppard said he expects to be running all night long as the Saints look to exploit the matchup.

"They're going to do what they do regardless of what we throw at them," Sheppard said. "If I'm in man coverage, I'll stay on my man. If I'm assigned to be zone, I'll cover my area and be aggressive to the ball. From our view, it is so much what they're go to throw at us in the way of formations, it's our job to read what they have and execute what we're supposed to do."

For Sheppard, it will be his first regular-season game as a member of the Vikings and his first in a Cover-2 system. While he said he doesn't expect to get man-on-man coverage assignments when everyone else is running the Cover-2, he has been accustomed to taking a man wherever he goes on the field. He spent years with the Eagles and the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who never met a blitz opportunity he didn't like. In a typical game, the Eagles defense would blitz on 70 percent of plays and sometimes more – leaving players like Sheppard on an island if the blitzes got picked up or didn't have the desired effect. In his one year with the Jets, he found himself in a similar style of defensive scheme.

Going from that sort of risk-taking, all-out style that can kill a drive in an instant to the Cover-2 style of Leslie Frazier and the Vikings is a night-and-day change. The big play has been replaced by execution, attacking the ball and forcing an opponent to string double-digit-play drives together in order to score. Each defense has its pluses and minuses, but Sheppard said the bottom line of both is clear – execute and you will succeed.

"The biggest difference in this system is that there isn't as much stress," Sheppard said. "In Philly, we were left alone an awful lot because we blitzed so often. You knew the quarterback wasn't going to have much time on most of those plays and would be looking to get ball out immediately. We have a different technique here that we have to execute and have to do those things right. If we don't, it's going to break up everything else that's going on."

Perhaps the hardest part of trying to figure out how to defend the Saints in an injury-depleted secondary is that the Saints have so many weapons that can kill a defense. Marques Colston is the leading receiver and red zone threat. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson have the speed to make big plays. Lance Moore is a great route runner who moves the chains. Each of them has different size and style, and the Saints rotate them around in formations to keep them moving from one play to the next. If the Vikings were playing a team like their next two opponents – Miami and Detroit – an emphasis would be placed on containing clear cut go-to receivers Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson, respectively. The Saints don't have one bell cow to lead the pass offense. They have a herd.

Sheppard said the key to being successful will be in part to study film of each of the receivers and what different sorts of problems each of them poses to the Vikings defense.

"You have to know what a different receiver's strengths and weaknesses are," Sheppard said. "But in the end, you have to run your game plan. It's all about disrupting their timing and not let those guys get on top of you. They can always change up what receiver does what on a given play, so you can't always game plan for one guy. You just have to execute what you do regardless of who they put out on a given play. They have a lot of talent at wide receiver and they do different sorts of things, but when it comes to the snap of the ball, it doesn't matter which one of them is in front of you, because you still have to do the same thing defensively."

Sheppard is one of the few players on the 2010 team that doesn't have the sour taste in his mouth about the NFC Championship Game loss to the Saints. He came within a game of the Super Bowl himself with the Jets, who lost to Indianapolis for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but said he has heard a lot of talk about the loss to the Saints and how the Vikings are looking for a measure of revenge Thursday night. He may not have been there, but has a shared experience and a chip on his shoulder that he hopes will fit in the mindset of his Vikings teammates who feel they were robbed of a chance to win the championship.

"I know what they've been through, because I've played in a lot of big postseason games," Sheppard said. "All of these guys know that if one or two of those turnovers didn't happen, it would have been a very different result. They're ready to show them what we can do and I'm just glad to be part of it this year. I came close (to getting to the Super Bowl) last year too, so I'm right in there with the rest of them as far as that goes."

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.

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