Vikings could be in trouble in secondary role
MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings have only three healthy cornerbacks on their active roster. The New Orleans Saints like to use four wide receiver sets.
It doesn't take a math whiz to realize the numbers don't work in the Vikings' favor.
But that is the predicament they face in their season opener Thursday against a Saints team that finished No. 1 in total offense and No. 4 in passing last season.
"It could be tough," Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Of course we're kind of short-handed, but that's football. We'll go out there and play with the guys that we have."
That group consists of Winfield, veteran Lito Sheppard and second-year player Asher Allen, the team's primary nickel back. Rookie Chris Cook was poised to start at right corner, but he suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game and could miss several games.
Their shortage of healthy corners forces the Vikings to explore different options. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier didn't even rule out getting some help from Cedric Griffin, who returned to practice this week after missing all of training camp while recovering from ACL surgery. Griffin injured his knee covering a kickoff against the Saints in the NFC Championship game last January. The team put him on the 53-man roster and he has practiced on a limited basis this week.
"The fact that he's out here practicing gives us some hope," Frazier said. "We're just trying to ascertain over the next couple days is it a real possibility. We're going to give it another day and see how he does (Tuesday). But he has already done far more than we expected when we decided to put him on the 53."
Frazier admitted it's probably too late in the week to sign another cornerback, so they need to find the solution inside their own locker room. One possibility could be safety Husain Abdullah, who got limited playing time as the nickel corner last season.
It wouldn't be surprising if Abdullah plays a significant role, possibly even as a starter at safety. Abdullah said he's done "a little bit of everything" this week in practice.
Safety Jamarca Sanford is bothered by an ankle injury and is better suited in run support. And last season's No. 1 strong safety, Tyrell Johnson, expressed doubt that he will start.
"I don't really know, I doubt it though," he said. "But all you can do is handle your job, your responsibilities."
Sheppard admittedly didn't make many plays in preseason games, but he blamed it on a lack of opportunities. That shouldn't be a problem against the Saints.
"You know what you're in store for," he said. "We know what the situation is going into this game. We just have to be professionals and be prepared for it."
The Vikings are hoping a consistent pass rush on quarterback Drew Brees will help their secondary. The Vikings were credited with one sack and four quarterback hurries against Brees in the NFC title game.
"(Pressure) is always important when you're playing against that guy," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "I think he's one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league. If we're going to win any kind of way — whether we have 100 (defensive backs) — we have to make him move and not let him get settled in the pocket."
The Vikings also need to be effective on third down. The Saints converted only 3 of 12 third-down opportunities last season. The Vikings can't afford to give that offense extra chances.
"They have so many weapons and can put up so many points on you so fast," Winfield said. "If we can get off the field like we did last year, we'll be good."
If not, their depth problem at cornerback could get magnified. The Vikings fully expect the Saints to come out throwing the ball with their four-receiver sets.
"I'm sure they are reading the papers and looking on the Internet, seeing we have only three corners," Winfield said. "So we can expect that."