It didn't take Antoine Winfield long to show everyone just what the Minnesota Vikings were missing during the seven weeks he spent on the sidelines.
On the second series of the game against Cincinnati on Sunday, Winfield knifed in from his left cornerback spot to blow up a screen pass to Bengals running back Brian Leonard and force a punt. It's the kind of play the 5-foot-9 Pro Bowler has made a career of making, and something the Vikings sorely lacked in his absence.
After sitting out six games in seven weeks with a right foot injury, Winfield led the defense with nine tackles and forced a fumble in Minnesota's 30-10 victory.
"It's kind of like riding a bike," Winfield said. "This is my 11th year in the NFL. I've been playing football my whole life. Once I'm on the field, it's back to business."
Against the Bengals, one of the most physical, run-oriented teams in the league this season, it was just another day at the office for perhaps the league's biggest little man.
He was injured in the first half of a game against Baltimore on Oct. 18 and languished on the sidelines for nearly two months before finally getting clearance to play.
For the past three weeks, Winfield said on the Friday before the game that he hoped to play on Sunday, only to be held out at game time because he was still feeling discomfort when he planted on his foot. This time around, he was finally ready, and it showed all game long.
"He's a stud," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said. "You saw the impact he has on a game with just the big hits and plays that he was making."
With the Vikings clinging to a 13-7 lead late in the second quarter, Winfield up-ended Leonard in the flat, forcing a fumble that led to another field goal and a big momentum shift just before halftime. Leonard outweighs Winfield by 50 pounds, but that didn't stop the hard-nosed cornerback from barreling into the bruising running back every time the opportunity came around.
"I expect to go out there each week and make as many plays as possible," Winfield said. "I really don't think about size. I don't think about who I'm going up against. I just try to play hard for 60 minutes."
Asher Allen, Benny Sapp and Karl Paymah filled in admirably in Winfield's stead, but with middle linebacker and captain E.J. Henderson lost for the season last week to a broken leg and the Vikings defense smarting from a blowout loss to the Cardinals, Winfield's return gave the unit the boost it needed so badly.
"I consider him one of the top five run defenders in all of football," Vikings quarterback Brett Favre said. "Not only is he good against the pass, he's as valuable to our run stop defense as Kevin (Williams) and Pat (Williams). The guy's outstanding. Having him back sure helps a lot."
Even when he made a mistake, Winfield received a hearty cheer from the home crowd. He dropped what should have been an easy interception in the second quarter, then dropped down for 10 push-ups to the crowd's delight.
It was about the only thing he did wrong in a sterling performance. With Winfield's help, the Vikings held Carson Palmer and the Bengals passing offense to 91 yards through the air.
"Awesome," said Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who was held to three catches for 27 yards. "I can only speak from the secondary's standpoint. But Cedric Griffin, Antoine Winfield, Madieu Williams, they did a hell of a job."
NOTES: The 40-year-old Favre had his first QB sneak of the season, gaining 4 yards on third-and-2 just before the 2-minute warning. He joked afterward that the play redeemed him after he was whistled for an illegal forward pass when he crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing a TD to Sidney Rice in the first quarter. "I'd like to blame that on old age," he cracked. ... Rookie Jamarca Sanford started at safety for Tyrell Johnson (concussion) and had nine tackles. Rookie Jasper Brinkley also played well at MLB in place of Henderson. ... All five of the Vikings 2009 draft class (WR Percy Harvin, RT Phil Loadholt, CB Asher Allen, Brinkley and Sanford) have started at least one game this season.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.