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Updated: October 24th, 2012 4:57pm
Zulgad: Healthy Antoine Winfield is big part of Vikings' success

Zulgad: Healthy Antoine Winfield is big part of Vikings' success

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Antoine Winfield has gotten plenty of credit for standing up in front of his teammates following a disappointing Week 2 loss at Indianapolis and informing them that they had to play tougher football and be better prepared or it was going to be another long season for the Minnesota Vikings.

Winfield is far from the most boisterous guy in the locker room, so when the 14-year veteran spoke, his message did carry plenty of meaning. But what Winfield's speech shouldn't overshadow is the fact that at age 35, the hard-hitting cornerback is again playing at a high level.

In fact, Winfield laughed this week when asked how old he would guess he was if he watched film of himself from the Vikings' first seven games this season.

"I was just talking to (NFL Network analyst) Mike Mayock," Winfield said. "He was like, 'Man, you look like you're 27, 28 years old running around out there.' I was like, 'I feel good. The coaches are taking care of me during the week.' That's the time that usually the legs feel a little heavy but I feel great. They're cutting off my reps in practice and letting me play on Sundays."

Winfield has rewarded coach Leslie Frazier and first-year defensive coordinator Alan Williams for how they have treated him. He will enter Thursday night's game against Tampa Bay, second on the Vikings with 61 tackles. That puts him 18 behind team-leader Chad Greenway.

Winfield leads the Vikings with two interceptions and is second to defensive end Jared Allen with seven tackles for loss. He also has broken up seven passes. Winfield recorded his first sack of the season last Sunday when he brought down Arizona quarterback John Skelton on a fourth-and-2 play in the third quarter of the Vikings' 21-14 victory.

The win improved the Vikings to 5-2, giving them two more victories than they had all of last year when Winfield played in only five games because of a neck strain and fractured collarbone that he suffered in a 45-7 loss last November in Green Bay. The second injury landed him on injured reserve.

"In this game, I think the injury percentage is 100," Winfield said. "It's going to happen and there's no way to avoid. But, for me, taking 11 games off last season, I was very excited to work hard during the offseason, come back ready to go, take over the starting role and play well."

Winfield and the Vikings have done just that.

"It's fun," he said when asked to compare the mood at Winter Park these days with what it was like a year ago. "We're 5-2, we're winning, we're playing well at home. We need to take that on the road. But when you're winning it cures everything."

Winfield is the oldest player on a roster that includes only six other players who are 30 or older.

General manager Rick Spielman spent the offseason retooling the Vikings roster, subtracting many of the veterans whom Winfield knew and replacing them with younger players.

Winfield said that never bothered him.

Rather, Winfield turned his attention to getting healthy and playing a full season. He said he didn't give much thought to the fact that a team coming off a 3-13 season was being rebuilt and seemingly set up for another tough year.

"It was out of my control," he said. "I really didn't have anything to do with that. They were going to make that move and there was nothing I could do but move on. (I was) just getting myself ready to play and when my number was called be out there and play well. ... These young guys keep me young. All the energy, the locker room, they have it. It gets me excited to go out there and play ball with them."

Meanwhile, Winfield's coaches have devised a plan to keep him as fresh and healthy as possible.

Winfield said that Frazier and Williams' practice routine for him consists of little to no work during the Wednesday practice, having him take a couple of reps at the nickel position on Thursdays and then holding him out on Fridays.

"It's just mental reps," Winfield said.

At this point in his career, and considering he probably hits harder than any 5-foot-9, 180-pound corner in the league, Winfield is better off to be physically rested by game day.

He still sees plenty of game action, starting at the left corner position and then shifting inside on passing downs when the Vikings employ three cornerbacks.

What's most important for Winfield is that he remains dedicated to studying his opponent and setting an example in his preparation, even if that preparation doesn't involve a lot of practice time.

"He's just a good role model in terms of how to do things right," Williams said. "That even when you get up there in years, if you're still working hard, paying attention to the details. ... He really shows what we're trying to preach in terms of the fundamentals. And when you're in the right places and you're going hard, the defense will put you in position to make plays. When he gets in those positions he makes big plays."

So far, the Vikings have gotten a bargain with how Winfield has played this season.

Because Winfield appeared in only five games in 2011, a playing-time clause in his contract was triggered that dropped his base salary this season from $7 million to $3 million.

That actually probably saved Winfield's spot on a roster where plenty of veterans were jettisoned. An NFL source told 1500 ESPN last December that Winfield could make back those $4 million in incentives, based on hitting benchmarks for the percentage of snaps he plays.

Winfield's contract runs through 2013, when his scheduled base salary is $7.25 million. However, that number could be reduced, too, depending on his role this season.

Winfield fully understands this and accepts the fact that while playing time is nice, staying in the game for the next few years is more important.

Winfield said the only idea he's not open to is moving to safety. "Either I'm on the outside or at the nickel," he said. "I'll never move back to the safety."

The week before the Vikings' 30-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 7 at the Metrodome, Winfield was called in by the coaches and informed that rookie Josh Robinson would get the start at left corner and would split more reps than usual in the base defense.

Not only was Winfield not bothered by this decision, he seemed to be on board with it.

"These coaches take care of me," Winfield said. "I trust them, we've been together for a long time. Against Tennessee we wanted to get Josh more experience. We really didn't feel there was a threat (with the Titans). But Josh can play some ball. They want to get him some more reps, want to see what he can do and he's doing a good job."

However, don't make the mistake of thinking Winfield is man who is just about done playing football. He said he will step away from the game when "it becomes work," but that has yet to happen.

Winfield said he is open to eventually moving exclusively to the inside position in the nickel and giving up his starting role outside. Of course, NFL teams are now often in the nickel defense because of the amount of passing that goes on.

"I could see that happening," Winfield said. "I don't know when, don't have a timetable but definitely. I could play nickel easily two or three more years. That's my home position."

Two or three more years?

That would take Winfield to the age of 37 or 38.

"My goal was (to play) 10," years, Winfield said. "I'm past that and taking it year-to-year." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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