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Vikings: Berrian says he's finally ready to run

NFL players don't usually proclaim how great they feel at this point of the season, but Bernard Berrian couldn't resist the urge. Sure he has the typical late-season aches and pains, but for the first time in what seems like forever, the Vikings'...

NFL players don't usually proclaim how great they feel at this point of the season, but Bernard Berrian couldn't resist the urge.

Sure he has the typical late-season aches and pains, but for the first time in what seems like forever, the Vikings' receiver was not listed on the injury report because of a hamstring injury. Berrian provided further evidence when he approached wide receivers coach George Stewart before practice early last week and told him his legs feel "great."

"Finally," Berrian said later.

Berrian readily admits that his 2009 season has been frustrating because he has not felt right physically after suffering one hamstring injury in the preseason opener and then another against the Pittsburgh Steelers in late October.

A year after leading the NFL in average yards per catch, Berrian has not been the same explosive vertical threat that he was in his first season with the Vikings. Unable to reach his top-end speed, Berrian's game has revolved mostly around slants and other quick-hitting passes.

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The team's clear-cut No. 1 receiver entering the season, Berrian also watched his production take a hit with the emergence of Sidney Rice, the arrival of rookie Percy Harvin and quarterback Brett Favre's preference to spread the ball around to a host of receivers and running backs.

Berrian, however, said any frustration on his behalf revolves around his injury and not his role.

"Definitely frustrated but it has nothing to do with new guys coming in or anything like that," he said. "It's just not being healthy."

That's not the case now. Berrian's coaches and teammates noticed a difference in him this past week.

"He has had a hop in his step this week," coach Brad Childress said.

"It looks like he's back to his old self," Rice said. "He's screaming up the field, coming off the ball. It's just amazing how much of a difference it is just watching him practice. He wants to race people down the boundary and stuff like that so you can tell he's feeling real good."

It comes at a good time. The Vikings are coming off their worst performance of the season in a loss at Carolina and are trying to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Their offense could use Berrian's speed and big-play capability to loosen things up for the running game, which has lacked consistency lately.

Berrian also has the added motivation of playing against his former team, the Chicago Bears, in a prime-time nationally televised game Monday night. Many of his family members, including his daughter, Jayden, planned on traveling to Chicago to attend the game.

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"I'm finally starting to feel back to normal," said Berrian, who turned 29 on Sunday. "It's been a big pain all year. Especially being a speed guy, not being able to do what basically your main talent is. It gets frustrating, but I tried to go out there and play with I could do with it and try to get through it."

Berrian is second on the team in catches (50), third in receiving yards (510) and fourth in touchdown catches (four). Perhaps more telling, Berrian already has more catches than last season (48) but about half the receiving yards (964).

His 20.1 yards per catch average led the NFL last season. He's averaging 10.2 yards per catch this season.

Berrian had four 100-yard receiving games in 2008 and recorded two of the Vikings three longest pass plays in teams history (99 and 86 yards).

He has not reached 100 yards this season and his longest catch this season is 36 yards.

Berrian, who is in the second season of his six-year, $42 million contract, said his hamstring is the primary culprit for that decline.

"It's hard to get out there and perform when you're not 100 percent, especially with what it was," he said. "If it was like a hand or a finger, that would be different. But my wheels are my wheels. If you can't run ... There's only so much I can control. Going into the game knowing that I'm not going to be as fast as I would like to be is tough. I just tried to stay focused and make every play that I could possibly make."

Rice dealt with leg injuries the past two seasons so he said he understands the toll it takes.

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"It's real tough not being able to trust yourself, knowing you can't go full speed, being afraid that you're going to tear it or do something worse," he said.

Berrian said the injury forced him to adjust his game. Unable to stretch the field consistently with his speed on the outside, he ran more short and intermediate routes. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe jokingly dubbed Berrian the "slant king" earlier this season. Defenses also are more cognizant of Berrian's vertical threat this season.

"I'll go downfield but I just haven't had the chances downfield I would like," he said. "It's more quick-hitting stuff because I really don't have to explode as much because it's quick. But once you start getting to top-end speed that's where I really couldn't get to."

The injury and missed practice time made it difficult for Berrian and Favre to establish their timing and chemistry. Favre clearly has felt more comfortable with Rice and Harvin, although he hasn't necessarily shied away from Berrian. Favre has targeted Rice 107 times this season, Berrian 84 and Harvin 73.

Berrian is getting chances but just a different kind.

"He's had some productive games," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He hasn't had the big breakout games like he had last year. He's still getting catches. He's still being able to make some plays for us, important plays, but he's still been fighting through things the whole year."

Stewart referred to it as a "nagging, nagging, nagging injury." He noticed Berrian being cautious at times because of it, but he believes his veteran receiver is ready to "cut it loose" on Monday night against the Bears.

"This is the time we need him," Stewart said. "We need that speed outside. ... We're still sending him vertical in terms of trying get the ball downfield. But the thing that accentuates us is the emergence of Sidney Rice and drafting Percy Harvin.

"Bernard is a pro. He's been in this league for six years now. He understands that, 'Hey, that guy is pretty good. Sidney is pretty good.' That's what you want. You want a team of guys that can make plays. We're very fortunate to have guys like Bernard, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin."

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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