And when Winfield was hurt during Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, the 10-year veteran cornerback's value to the Vikings' defense was plenty vivid in a rough fourth quarter filled with missed tackles.
"These things are always competitive, and you've got to finish," Vikings coach Brad Childress said after his team hung on for a 33-31 victory over the Ravens, who rallied for 21 points in the final 10 minutes to take a brief lead and had the chance to win with a last-second field goal.
Winfield injured his right foot on Baltimore's first series of the second quarter and left the bench area to be examined. Karl Paymah took Winfield's place on the next possession and gave up Derrick Mason's 28-yard reception. Mason finished with 97 yards and one touchdown, and Joe Flacco passed for 385 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns for the Ravens.
Paymah wasn't beaten badly on any plays, and Mason also was sometimes covered by Cedric Griffin, the other starter opposite Winfield. With Winfield out, though, the Vikings were clearly weakened.
"I thought Karl Paymah was in position a couple of times," Childress said. "You've got to give it to Joe Flacco and the receivers that made those plays up there in bump man-to-man coverage. He had decent coverage. Flacco got hit on one of those, at least. But good plays by them, and we will learn from some of those things."
Benny Sapp, a hard-hitting nickel back, also sat out during the second quarter and occasionally in the second half while feeling the effects of a helmet-to-helmet hit that he sustained while covering a first-quarter kickoff.
Flacco threw for 196 yards in the fourth quarter, much of it after the catch while the Vikings whiffed on their tackle attempts at the wrong times. With Winfield, Minnesota normally is one of the best tackling teams in the NFL, but that crucial skill was missing in the clutch.
Rice also rushed off left tackle for 33 yards less than 2 minutes later, a one-play possession that put Baltimore in front.
"A lot of the plays are mostly on us: bad technique, missed tackles," Paymah said. "They got us a little bit with the hurry-up. We were out of position a lot. ... Just little stuff we can clean up by ourselves. You've got to take your hats off to that team. They didn't lay down."
Winfield was wearing a hat on the sideline during the second half. He wanted to go back in, but the team decided to be safe with his injury.
"We just didn't think it was prudent to do that," Childress said.
With Winfield and Sapp both out at times, safety Husain Abdullah played some of the nickel role, with Griffin and Paymah on the outside. Sapp said the tests he was given on the sideline ruled out a concussion, but his head wasn't at 100 percent.
"It was just ringing," he said.
Winfield had one interception, six passes defended and 30 tackles in the first five games this season.
"We need every guy that's healthy to go," Winfield said. "The guys that were in there did a great job."
This week, the Vikings' defense will have plenty on which to work. Even at 6-0, there's little danger of complacency.
"I don't think we're going to be able to, if we play like that in the fourth quarter and give up that many points," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Again, a good team -- but we just want to play better."
The Vikings had two more scary injuries during the fourth quarter.
Running back Adrian Peterson hurt his left ankle while it was caught underneath Baltimore's Dannell Ellerbe during a tackle. Peterson limped off the field and sat out a few plays during Minnesota's next series, but he was back in for the following possession and said afterward that he was fine.
"I was in some pain, though," Peterson said. "It wasn't broke or anything, so right now it's feeling real good."
Wide receiver Percy Harvin also aggravated an injury to his left shoulder. Childress said X-rays showed no extra damage.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press