MINNEAPOLIS -- A few minutes passed Sunday before Antoine Winfield arrived at his moment of truth. It had been two months since he last attempted a tackle, a gap caused by a slow-healing sprained foot. So on a third-down play during Cincinnati’s second series, Winfield saw a screen play coming his way.
“I’ve pretty much perfected the art of tackling,” Winfield said. “I wrap up. Usually when I hit you, you’ll go down.”
But no one knew if that would be the case when the Vikings’ Pro Bowl cornerback finally returned to the field. Would he pick up where he left off as the NFL’s best tackler? Would he be rusty? Would the foot hamper his movement?
Winfield answered those questions and much more as Minnesota clinched a playoff berth with a 30-10 victory over Cincinnati. After catching the screen pass, Bengals tailback Brian Leonard attempted to jump over a pile of potential tacklers. Winfield grabbed his leg and pulled him down for no gain. The play was the first of Winfield’s nine solo tackles in the game, the key part of a defensive effort that harassed the Bengals' offense into its worst game of the season.
The Vikings’ defense has played winning football without Winfield. But Sunday, there was little doubt about how he elevates it to another level. As you can see in the chart below, the Bengals managed only 36 yards on the nine plays where Winfield made the tackle. He stopped the ball carrier short of a first down on seven of those plays.
Perhaps the most significant instance came just before halftime, when Winfield upended Leonard on another pass and forced a fumble. The Vikings recovered in time for Ryan Longwell to kick a 44-yard field goal, giving Minnesota a 16-7 lead at halftime and permanently swinging the momentum of the game.
“When you lose a key guy like Antoine, there is just a void on your team,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You can’t fill those voids. There are intangibles that guys bring to the position that you can’t see on paper. You might have another guy in there, but he can’t make the kind of splash plays that an Antoine Winfield can make. It has a domino effect and makes everybody better.”
Indeed, Winfield helped the Vikings hold what has been a potent Cincinnati attack to a season-low 210 yards. Minnesota also dramatically improved its perimeter run defense with Winfield in the lineup.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings entered Week 14 allowing the second-highest average per rush (4.8) outside the numbers of the field this season. Although Bengals tailback Cedric Benson rushed for 96 yards on 16 carries, most of the damage came in the middle of the field. The Bengals averaged 2.7 yards outside the numbers.
“Those are the kinds of things you miss from him,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said. “Those splash plays that happen on the edge when he approaches a sweep, usually those are lost yardage plays. It has a tendency to elevate the rest of the defensive guys.”
That seemed to occur even in the passing game, where the Bengals smartly schemed themselves away from Winfield. But fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin limited receiver Chad Ochocinco to three receptions for 27 yards while also teaming with Winfield for two key plays early in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals were threatening to make it a one-score game after getting a first-and-goal at the 8. Winfield diagnosed their second-down play, abandoning coverage on a tight end to stop Benson for a 5-yard gain. On third down, Griffin knocked away a pass intended for Ochocinco in the end zone.
“Antoine is just an exciting player,” Griffin said. “We feed off of him and his intensity.”
Winfield, in fact, said he hoped to bring “energy” to the defense after watching from the sidelines as it got steamrolled last week in Arizona.
“Last week,” he said, “we didn’t really feel it and came out and got our butts whupped. Today was different.”
Although Winfield’s injury isn’t likely to heal completely until after the season, there’s little doubt he brought the Vikings a big lift at the lowest point of their season. Defensive end Jared Allen, for one, said the Vikings have “so much confidence” when Winfield is on the field and defending the perimeter.
They also have a few more laughs.
Winfield had everyone smiling in the second quarter when he dropped an easy interception at midfield. After watching the replay on the Metrodome video board, Winfield dropped to the ground and performed 10 pushups. A sellout crowd of 63,854 roared in approval.
“That’s the thing I just automatically thought to do,” he said. “In practice, when you drop a ball, you go down and get your 10 pushups in. I mean, the ball hit me right in the chest.”
It was his only mistake during an otherwise glistening return. There was no doubt Sunday. Winfield is back.