One key player on each side of the ball the Minnesota Vikings didn’t have the first time they faced the Packers this season could make a difference in the rematch.
Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield and center John Sullivan missed the Week-7 matchup due to injuries but are expected to be in the lineup Monday night at Lambeau Field.
Considering the Vikings gave up 33 points in the first meeting, Winfield’s return on defense will probably have the bigger impact. Now in his 13th season and eighth with Minnesota, Winfield missed the Vikings’ last four games with a neck injury but finished his healing and rehab over the bye last week. He has been a full participant in practice this week.
At 5-9, 180, Winfield is a solid cover corner who’s also a physical tackler, particularly in run-support off the edge. He has earned a measure of respect from the Packers over the years since coming to the Vikings from the Buffalo Bills back in 2004.
“He’s probably the toughest pound-for-pound player in the league,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has been intercepted once by Winfield, at the Metrodome in 2009. “I would put him up against anybody.
“He’s a savvy veteran. He knows how to play the game and how to make plays from his corner position. If they bring him inside to play the nickel, he’s very good in their scheme. He definitely adds a lot to their defense.”
Minnesota’s defensive backfield has been in flux all season, with injuries to Winfield and safety Jamarca Sanford, and the legal troubles of cornerback Chris Cook. All three missed the Week-7 game and the Vikings’ secondary depth was severely tested as Rodgers completed 24 of 30 throws for 335 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was a season-high 146.5, the second highest of his career.
Sanford is expected back Monday night, as well, but it’s Winfield the Packers have their eye on. Head Coach Mike McCarthy called him a “playmaker” and a defensive leader. Winfield has 24 career interceptions and 14 forced fumbles and, as a blitzer, he has recorded five sacks over the past three seasons.
“They’ll be a different secondary with him back there,” McCarthy said. “I’ve really admired him from afar. He’s tough in the run game. He has a very unique way of coming underneath blockers and making plays. He’s a damn good football player.”
So is Sullivan, who stepped in as Minnesota’s center for long-time starter Matt Birk back in 2009. He has started all but three games since then, but one of those he missed was the first meeting with Green Bay this year, due to a concussion.
Versatile backup Joe Berger, who replaced Sullivan in the first matchup, likely will be filling in for right guard Anthony Herrera (knee) this time.
In his first two seasons as a starter, Sullivan was the youngest of the NFC North centers behind Chicago’s Olin Kreutz, Detroit’s Dominic Raiola and Green Bay’s Scott Wells but, by last year already, he trailed only guard Steve Hutchinson in esteem on Minnesota’s line.
Adrian Peterson ran the ball just fine without Sullivan three weeks ago against the Packers, gaining 175 yards, but where Sullivan could make a difference is with rookie quarterback Christian Ponder.
“It takes the burden off of (the QB), particularly at the line of scrimmage and with the adjustments, just because veteran centers have seen more,” McCarthy said. “Experience is priceless in this league, especially at quarterback and center because of the responsibility of those positions.”
The Packers held Ponder to a 41 percent completion rate (13 of 32) and intercepted him twice, but Sullivan’s presence could improve that efficiency on Monday night.
“He’s the starter for a reason, so there’s definitely a difference,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “He can aid him as far as protections, where they want to slide to, or locating a linebacker. He can definitely help him.”
Neal making progress: Defensive end Mike Neal (knee) has been ruled out for Monday night’s game, but he spoke with reporters on Saturday for the first time since returning to the practice field this week. He took some team (11-on-11) snaps in practice on Saturday, even though the original plan for this week was for him just to do individual drills, he said.
“That’s encouraging,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’ll just see how he goes through the weekend and, hopefully, we can take it to another level next week. He’s doing well.”
The pattern with Neal, who originally injured his knee in training camp and then needed a procedure done to clean out cartilage, has been to steadily increase his workload and then see how the knee responds the next day. He did individual drills in pads on Friday, and the knee responded well enough that he took some team snaps in Saturday’s workout, which was not in pads.
With the Packers having two short weeks heading into their next two games after Monday night, it’s hard to gauge whether Neal will be able to test the knee enough – and get enough recovery time – to play in a game during this current stretch. At this point, Neal is not making any predictions as to a gameday return.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll do a lot more (in practice) next week,” he said. “It’s just a progression. I want to get myself feeling comfortable going game speed.” Additional coverage - Nov. 12