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Banged-up Vikings happy to have some depth - and a week off

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) - In this year of injuries, Minnesota's week off couldn't have come at a better time.

The Vikings will use their bye to begin to heal - and appreciate the fact they're 2-1 and tied for the NFC North lead despite losing several key players to injuries.

"When the schedule first came out, you wish it was a little bit later," free safety Brian Russell said. "But as the case may be, we need it right now. It's kind of a good fortune in disguise."

Minnesota has overcome these early-season maladies with reliable depth, but there's a question about whether they'll haunt the team later on.

Right now, though, the Vikings can't worry about that. Injuries are plaguing nearly every team in the league, for one, and players missing time in September and October should be strong in November and December.

"Down the stretch when we get those guys back, we're going to be really at full tilt," Russell said.

Running back Michael Bennett will return from a sprained knee at Houston on Oct. 10, and center Matt Birk might be able to join him after leaving Minnesota's last game against Chicago with a sprained ankle.

Linebacker E.J. Henderson (knee), linebacker Chris Claiborne (calf) and tight end Jermaine Wiggins (hand) are expected back the week after in New Orleans.

Tight end Jim Kleinsasser (knee), right tackle Mike Rosenthal (foot) and cornerback Ken Irvin (Achilles' tendon) aren't coming back this season, but the Vikings have survived those losses - and the short-term ones - with solid performances by several backups.

Running back Onterrio Smith, center Cory Withrow, linebacker Mike Nattiel, tight end Sean Berton, tight end Richard Owens and tackle Nat Dorsey all contributed to Minnesota's victory over the Bears last week.

And all of them were either low-round draft picks or undrafted free agents. Coach Mike Tice credits the college and pro personnel departments for identifying valuable players that aren't on everybody's list of blue-chippers.

"Anytime you get one of those guys you're doing a great job," Tice said. "It gives us that ability to have that depth and not go into a panic mode every time you have an injury."

Tice and his staff have used the down time this week to reflect on the team's strengths through three games and analyze ways to improve the weaknesses.

One of those is finishing off deep drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. In their last 11 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, the Vikings have reached the end zone just four times. But a lot of teams would love to have that many red-zone possessions, a fact that's not lost on Tice.

"I'm just so pleased where we're at right now," he said.

The offense has been running quite smoothly with three starters missing. Daunte Culpepper has been NFC Offensive Player of the Week twice already, and he's completed 73 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns with just one interception and one lost fumble.

Randy Moss has caught five of Culpepper's TDs, and Onterrio Smith leads the team in yards rushing (198) and receiving (223).

The defense is still a work in progress under new coordinator Ted Cottrell, but it's been tough near the goal line. Chicago's first five visits to the red zone last week yielded only nine points.

"If we can keep them out of the end zone," strong safety Corey Chavous said, "that's a lift for the offense."

The big lift, to those who have been hurt, has come from watching their teammates fill in admirably.

"We definitely have depth," Birk said. "You're going to have stretches like this during the season where you get hit by the injury bug real hard.

"When you go in there and just do your job - don't worry about anybody else's - good things will happen. It's just all about getting wins on Sundays. That's all that matters. It doesn't matter how you go about doing it."

Sure makes the coaches' jobs easier, too.

"I feel great about how the backups have stepped in," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "That's the whole key to being a good football team, having guys that can step in and do the job. Obviously you hope to stay lucky and not have many injuries. But reality is you know you're going to have them."

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