Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Last week, Antoine Winfield wore only a wrap and a protective pad on his fractured right hand. This week, he’ll go with a sturdier soft cast. And that more than anything else is giving Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier optimism that Winfield will be able to play more Saturday night in Green Bay than he did in last weekend’s home win over the Packers.
“I feel better,” Frazier said following Thursday’s practice, the Vikings’ last of the week. “Just to see him move around with that cast, he was actually over there hitting the dummies and doing some things to jar it just to see how it would feel. And he said it felt great. So that was encouraging, very encouraging.”
Winfield played only 18 of 64 defensive snaps last weekend. And the Vikings defense was chewed up after his exit in the second quarter. Even if Winfield can start Saturday night, Frazier has dabbled with contingency plans, one of which would include moving A.J. Jefferson inside as a slot corner and using rookie Josh Robinson outside. Marcus Sherels, who replaced Winfield on Sunday, is also an option in the slot, though it seems clear the Vikings are looking for ways to minimize Sherels’ role on defense.
Winfield will likely be listed as questionable when the Vikings issue their official injury report on Friday. It seems likely that he will start. Keeping that hand protected will be key.
Winfield also noted after Thursday's practice that he would definitely be seeking medicinal help to numb his right hand as much as possible.
In other injury news …
Quarterback Christian Ponder had his reps limited in practice today because of a bruise on his throwing elbow, coach Leslie Frazier said after practice today.
"Christian has soreness in his elbow," Frazier said. "He'll get some reps tomorrow. I think he'll be fine. Just get some work tomorrow and see how much he progresses. But it doesn't seem like it should be something that would hinder him come [Saturday]. But we need to ramp it up a little bit tomorrow to see where he is."
Frazier said Ponder suffered the bruise when he was hit on the play in which the ball blooped into the air and somehow avoided two Packers to land in the hands of receiver Jarius Wright for a 17-yard gain.
Meanwhile, Frazier voiced confidence that cornerback Antoine Winfield will be able to play with his fractured right hand. Winfield broke the hand two weeks ago against Houston, but finished the game. He tried to play last week against the Packers, but lasted only 18 snaps before pain and swelling sent him to the sideline for the rest of the game.
"Antoine didn't participate today, but he'll get some work tomorrow," Frazier said. "We think he'll make it. He's making some progress. He's going to participate tomorrow and see how he feels, but right now, he has a whole lot less pain than he had a week ago at this time. So that's encouraging."
Without Winfield, the Vikings went with Marcus Sherels as the slot corner in the nickel. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers picked on Sherels throughout the second half, including a play in which Jordy Nelson beat Sherels for a 73-yard reception.
In other injury news:
Leslie Frazier was never really considering an outdoor practice Tuesday as his Vikings prepare for Saturday’s trip to Lambeau Field. For one thing, the Vikings’ practice fields at Winter Park remain covered in snow, which would have made the footing too treacherous.
But even if Frazier had even a small thought of heading outdoors, that idea was killed permanently when he arrived at Winter Park on New Year’s morning and felt the bitter chill.
“It was minus-10 this morning,” Frazier said. “Any thoughts I had about us going out there were kind of removed when I got out of my car this morning.”
So the Vikings practiced inside. But to help prepare players for Sunday’s cold in Green Bay, the Vikings opened the giant sliding garage doors on their field house to let the freeze in.
With different rules and regulations in the playoffs, the Vikings didn’t release an injury report Tuesday even after practicing. They will have to release injury updates on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The four players to miss practice entirely were Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Harrison Smith and Tyrone McKenzie.
Winfield’s injury is the most significant. And the Vikings might not know until Saturday now much the veteran cornerback will be able to play if at all. Winfield’s right hand remains significantly swollen after he fractured the second metacarpal in Houston on Dec. 23. Winfield tried to play through the injury against Green Bay last weekend but aggravated things, played only 18 defensive snaps and left the game for good in the second quarter.
Below the surface
McKenzie’s injury has its own significance. The back-up linebacker had his left arm in a sling Tuesday. As a key special teams contributor on coverages, McKenzie’s absence this weekend would be notable. McKenzie was actually given a game ball for his special teams contribution in Week 16 at Houston. He was hurt in Sunday's win over Green Bay but was on the field when Jeremy Ross busted off a 44-yard return at the start of the second quarter. Ross’ burst to the Green Bay 43 marked the first time since Week 5 that the Vikings had allowed a kickoff return past the 25.
The Vikings were also playing Sunday without special teams ace Robert Blanton, a rookie, who was inactive as the team adjusted its roster to have an extra defensive end available in case Brian Robison’s shoulder injury was aggravated.
“We had some moving parts in that ball game on Sunday [on special teams],” Frazier said. “That did affect some of the things we did.”
The Vikings won’t know until later in the week whether cornerback Antoine Winfield will be available for the Packers game on Saturday.
Winfield broke his right hand in the Vikings’ victory at Houston Dec. 23. He returned to play in Sunday’s game against Green Bay before pain forced him to leave the game. The Packers passing game heated up quickly after that.
During his press conference Monday, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said was simply pain – not further injury – that forced Winfield out of the game. As for his availability for Saturday’s rematch with the Packers in Green Bay?
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with Antoine,” Frazier said. “We’ll see how he does throughout the week. He was in quite a bit of pain [Sunday], so we’ll have to see how he does throughout the week and make a decision, maybe, later on.”
Marcus Sherels was inserted as Winfield’s replacement as the slot cornerback in passing situations. Frazier said the team went with – and stayed with – Sherels for the rest of the game because he has gotten more reps in the slot than rookie Josh Robinson, and that Robinson was best suited to play on the outside. That said, Frazier hinted that, should Winfield be unavailable, the Vikings might re-think their nickel defense.
“There are some things we’ll have to look at for this ball game that we might do a little bit different,” Frazier said. “But it goes back to who is an inside corner and who is an outside corner.”
Frazier said defensive end Brian Robison, who returned from a sprained shoulder to play Sunday, came out of the game OK.
Running back Adrian Peterson told Frazier that he felt better coming out of Sunday’s 199-yard performance than he did a week ago, when he finished the Houston game feeling a bit banged up.
Frazier said safety Harrison Smith – who left Sunday’s game for a spell with a shoulder issue – should be able to practice this week, though perhaps in a limited way. He is expected to play in Green Bay. The same goes for tackle Phil Loadholt. Frazier said there were some other players who were “nicked up.”
Peaking at the right time?
Recent history suggests that it is sometimes the hottest team – rather than the team with the best record overall – that has an edge as the playoffs begin. So does that mean the Vikings. Who won their last four regular season games, are in a good spot?
Frazier wouldn’t go that far. But it can’t hurt.
“We’ve played some games, in this last month, where we pretty much had our back against the wall, where we needed to get a win each week,” Frazier said. “Particularly these last four weeks. And our guys have risen to the challenge, played extremely well, and got us those wins. Now we’re into a whole new season. We hope we can continue that and improve, ‘cause we’re going to need to improve to go play on the road. It’s a big challenge for us, but we need to keep improving.”
Searching for lost yards?
Given that Peterson finished just nine yards short of setting the NFL’s all-time rushing record, Frazier was asked Monday if he was going to have somebody review the season to see if a few extra yards could be found.
“If we could find those hidden yards, we would do it,” Frazier joked. “They have different people who will be doing that. But we’ll be doing our own homework as well. If we can find nine yards, we’re going to find them.”
Seriously, though, Frazier said he expected another run at Eric Dickerson’s record next season.
“As you know, it doesn’t take much to get him going when he sets a goal,” Frazier said. “I wouldn’t put it past Adrian Peterson to shoot for that record next year and even attain it. He is one of those guys you never bet against. If that’s in his sights, it’s possible. Anything’s possible with Adrian.”
A familiar opponent
Saturday will mark the third game between the Vikings and Packers in five weeks. So, it will probably be difficult for either side to do anything to fool the other.
“We’ll look as hard as we can to see if there is anything we can do differently to help us,” Frazier said. “And for how we can improve across the board as a team. But we’re so familiar with one another, there aren’t a whole lot of new things you can do. But you can try to improve on what you have been doing. And what’s what we’ll try to get done.”
Upon further review…
Frazier said linebacker Erin Henderson should have stayed with Packers receiver Greg Jennings on the third-quarter Packers touchdown. Henderson let Jennings go, and Jennings was all alone in the left corner of the end zone for his five-yard TD reception .
Are the Vikings really out of step in a pass-happy NFL? Six of the eight top rushing teams in the league are in the playoffs, including the second-ranked Vikings.
And the ability to run could become even more important in a game where weather could inhibit a passing attack.
“I would think so,” Frazier said. “I don’t know what the conditions are going to be at Lambeau yet, but I’m still going back to what I think is best for us. It’s a formula I think that can work no matter the conditions.”
The Vikings will have to beat the Packers today to make the playoffs. The Bears beat the Lions 26-24, and Chicago will get into the playoffs if the Vikings do not.
Here are the inactives for the regular season finale against Green Bay at Mall of America Field. Not surprisingly, neither cornerback Antoine Winfield nor defensive end Brian Robison are inactive. Both veterans will play through their injuries today, despite being listed on Friday’s injury report as questionable.
The inactives for the Vikings today are: linebacker Audie Cole, receiver Stephen Burton, cornerback Brandon Burton, defensive end D’Aundre Reed, safety Robert Blanton, offensive lineman Troy Kropog and quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
Robison will play through a Grade 3 shoulder sprain this afternoon. In all likelihood, Everson Griffen will see more time at end as well to aid Robison.
Winfield, meanwhile, broke a bone in his right hand last weekend in Houston. But he played through that setback for more than three quarters last week and will wear a wrap and a protective pad today to aid in the injury.
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