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Williams or Smoot, who's the hot corner?

Vikings might have a cornerback controversy

MINNEAPOLIS

Ryan Fitzpatrick's first pass of the day floated right into the arms of Vikings cornerback Ralph Brown. All that stood between Brown and the end zone was about 60 yards of musty Metrodome air.

"I started looking at the end zone," Brown said. "I started thinking about celebrating with my dance before I caught the ball."

Then he dropped the ball.

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"It was a floater," he said, shaking his head in disappointment.

No matter, the Vikings' secondary started licking its collective chops. Here was a rookie quarterback, Fitzpatrick, who appeared shaky from the get-go.

"Oh yeah," cornerback Brian Williams said, his eyes growing wide at the recollection. "Definitely."

Talk about good fortune. Last week against the Lions, the defensive backs got a rusty and inept Jeff Garcia. On Sunday they got an unsure rookie. Happy holidays.

As it turned out, Minnesota picked off five passes. But no one had a better game than Williams.

"I thought Brian Williams was brilliant," coach Mike Tice said. "It might have been the best game he's played since he's been with us. He played very, very good football for us."

Williams intercepted twice. He also was in on six tackles, forced a fumble and generally forced Fitzpatrick to throw away from him. His picks came at key junctures, too. Clearly Tice will have a tough decision to make when Fred Smoot is healthy enough to return to the starting lineup.

"I have no decision to make," Tice said.

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What, they're going to flip a coin?

"We'll see how it goes."

OK, but somebody is going to have to decide. Both can't start at the same position, as far as I know. One will have to recede into the nickel defense. And Smoot, who had been out for a month with a shoulder injury, was healthy enough to play part time against the Rams.

"Fred went into the injury as our starting corner, and right now Brian is playing very, very well," Tice said. "I don't see what decision there is that needs to be made."

I think that means he's sticking with Williams. Or maybe Smoot is entitled to his old job back. I haven't been so confused since I tried to figure out Tice's theory of clock management.

I still don't know why Tice called that dopey timeout with 44 seconds left in the first half. There was no way he could get the ball back from St. Louis. The Rams had too many downs left, and the Vikings didn't have enough timeouts. After the timeout, the Rams, who had appeared content to run out the clock, scurried for a field goal.

Anyway, the irony here is that Williams was the starting corner until the Vikings signed the high-profile Smoot during the offseason.

Williams was so ticked off by the signing that he skipped all the voluntary workouts over the summer. Coaches hate that. Once the season started, Williams primarily was used as a fifth defensive back in passing situations. But he stepped in when Smoot was hurt and has done extremely well.

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He remains convinced that he has proved himself good enough to be a starter and get the lion's share of the playing time.

"I definitely think so. I've been a starter the last three years here," Williams said. "Things happened in the offseason. Who knows?"

Safety Darren Sharper said competition "motivates everyone."

"You saw the game that Fred had today," Sharper said. "I'm sure it's going to be a tough decision."

Actually, I thought Smoot didn't have that good of a game against St. Louis, even though he intercepted a pass. But at least he didn't get roasted to the point to where his teammates had to wrap him in a blanket to stop him from smoldering.

Smoot, you'll recall, was torched by Steve Smith at Carolina in his last healthy game.

But the defense in general and the secondary in particular played well. It was a good day for just such an effort. Punter Darren Bennett repeatedly gave the Rams' offense great field position. The fans were vocal in their displeasure.

I can't believe that Bennett beat out two other guys for the job last week. Those other two must qualify for handicapped parking passes. Then again, poor Bennett is older than Foge Fazio.

We'll cut him some slack.

The bottom line is six victories in a row for the Vikings.

"You have to give credit to the Vikings' defense," Fitzpatrick said. "I made some mistakes out there. It seemed like every time I made a mistake, they capitalized on it."

Not every time. Brown no doubt shook his head all the way home after dropping that floater. But his teammates in the secondary certainly made up for it. Especially Williams, who is making a strong case to remain the starter.

Some teams have quarterback controversies. It looks like the Vikings might be developing a cornerback controversy.

Tom Powers is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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