Break It Down, Wild-Card Weekend: Antoine Winfield's impact
The Minnesota Vikings will have their hands full Sunday, as they try to upset the Packers at Lambeau Field. Making that task all the more difficult is that Green Bay's talented receiving corps is as near 100 percent healthy as it has been in some time.
Minnesota had all sorts of trouble containing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers late in that Week 17 game. Most of the issues arose after cornerback Antoine Winfield, who tried to play through a broken hand, had to take himself out of the game. Winfield expects to play with a hard cast Saturday, and the Vikings will be crossing their fingers that he can.
Even with Winfield, their top cover cornerback this year, in the lineup, Minnesota might not have enough answers for Green Bay's aerial assault. We look at why in this final Wild-Card Weekend rendition of "Break It Down" ...
The Vikings almost always use Winfield in the slot against three-plus-receiver sets, then slide him outside in two-WR looks. The Packers do a ton of their damage out of the slot, be it from Cobb, Nelson or Jennings, meaning plenty of opportunities for Winfield to prove his worth.
Earlier last Sunday, Winfield's presence there allowed the Vikings to play comfortably straight-up against the Cobb-less Packers. On the play pictured below, Winfield (circled) lined up over a slot stack from Green Bay -- Finley was at the line, with Jennings behind him.
The three cornerbacks held their own, as multiple defenders covered up Finley across the middle. Rodgers tried to fire one in to Jones, but Cook was there for the break-up.
Another example from later in the first half, with the Vikings in a nickel defense. Winfield (circled) was on the field with fellow corners Cook and A.J. Jefferson, and Jamarca Sanford dropped down to take Finley.
At the snap, Winfield fired back, giving Minnesota a two-deep look. The Vikings then left Jefferson in man-coverage at the top of the picture, and slid into a zone look elsewhere, with two linebackers dropping and Sanford/Cook playing underneath Winfield.
This resulted in another incompletion, as Rodgers failed to squeeze a pass into a short window.
It also gives you some idea of Winfield's athleticism. The Vikings will use him in man-to-man defense on receivers most of the time, but he's also capable of reacting quickly enough to take on deep zone coverage.
Minnesota suffered a major drop-off in athleticism and coverage ability when Winfield had to come out of last Sunday's game.
The Packers did not waste any time picking on his replacement, Marcus Sherels, either. Green Bay's biggest play of the Week 17 showdown, yardage-wise, came on a 73-yard third-down strike from Rodgers to Nelson, with Sherels in man coverage.
At that point above, Sherels is already doomed. He did not try to jam Nelson at the line and does not have the speed to keep up with him stride for stride. Sherels' safety help from Harrison Smith was late arriving too, allowing Nelson to catch and run deep into Minnesota territory, before Jefferson tracked him down at the 8.
Sherels was the clear focus again later, as Rodgers dumped a 12-yard completion off over the middle to Greg Jennings. The veteran Green Bay receiver easily beat Sherels inside for a first down.
Sherels was targeted 10 times (with nine completions resulting) in a little more than a half Sunday. By contrast, in nearly six quarters of play against the Packers this season, Winfield has been on the defending end of just seven pass attempts.
Winfield's presence is even more critical because the Packers have shown repeatedly the ability to get guys open against against Minnesota's other defenders. Below, from Green Bay's Week 13 win, is a shot of a play in which Green Bay utilized two receivers and two tight ends. Winfield slid up top to play man-to-man, while Jefferson did the same low against Jennings.
Jennings had no problem finding open space for an 18-yard gain.
And as if covering all those receivers is not problematic enough, with or without Winfield, the Packers will throw to Finley plenty too. Which, at times, has resulted in coverage like this:
A full complement of receivers for Rodgers allows the Packers' offense to function with a similar principle as you'd see in an option-heavy attack -- the idea being that the offense can outnumber the defense at key points.
Case in point: Our final photo, with Winfield playing tight defense in the slot, both of Minnesota's outside corners in strong position man-on-man ... and Randall Cobb wide open for an easy pitch-and-catch.
There is no easy answer here for Minnesota: If Rodgers has time to throw the football, his receivers usually find a way to get open.
Winfield's presence on the field would be a small step toward negating the Packers' explosiveness -- he's not a flawless defender in the slot, but matching him up against Cobb, Nelson or Jennings provides Minnesota with a head-to-head it can at least stalemate.
The Vikings do not have all the answers, even if Winfield is on the field. But they would be in much worse shape, without any reliable backup options, without Winfield. Stopping Green Bay entirely may be impossible, but Winfield's presence could at least help slow the Pack down.