In the biggest game of the season, the faces of the future for the Minnesota Vikings' defense were never more present.
Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson, two rookies who are supposed to be learning the ropes and suffering through growing pains, made two of the most important plays of the game to help their team beat the Chicago Bears and stay in the playoff hunt.
They're growing up faster than anyone expected and are being counted on to keep producing even as they grind through the longest football season of their lives.
"We're pleased that both guys are not hurting you. And most rookies, when they do play, they hurt you," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said Thursday. "Ours are not. They're actually helping us and contributing to us winning football games."
Robinson intercepted a pass by Jay Cutler and returned it 44 yards to set up Adrian Peterson's second touchdown run of the first quarter, and Smith returned an interception 56 yards for a score in the third quarter to help the Vikings beat the Bears 21-14.
It's the kind of playmaking on the back end that has been sorely lacking in this defense for a few years now, and that's why the Vikings invested a first-round pick in Smith and a third-rounder in Robinson in April's draft. Smith has been a been a starter from the season opener while Robinson has been counted on more and more as other cornerbacks have gone down with injuries.
The Vikings (7-6) play at St. Louis on Sunday and believe they need to win their final three games to get into the playoffs. That puts plenty of pressure on a young secondary to play like veterans, but coach Leslie Frazier says these kids have earned his trust. Before the Bears game, he specifically addressed his rookies to try to push them through the wall that typically befalls young players this time of year.
"You can't hide behind the fact that you're a rookie anymore," Frazier said. "You got 12 games into the league now, let's start playing like veterans in a lot of ways. We challenged some of our young guys (last Saturday) to step it up and they did."
The rookie wall may be a bit of a cliche, but Williams said it is something coaches have to deal with every season.
"Most rookies go through that. It is a real phenomenon in terms of guys getting tired or getting disinterested," Williams said. "But both of those guys are coming along very well."
Robinson doesn't necessarily buy into it.
"Nah, no wall," he said with a shrug. "Haven't seen one."
They have taken some pride in performing so well, especially after most observers looked at the youth in the secondary and figured it would be one of the team's downfalls this season. Like a proud older brother, 35-year-old Antoine Winfield has been pleasantly surprised by the way they've handled their first professional season.
"You never know what to expect out of young guys," Winfield said. "These guys have worked hard. They're taking care of their bodies and studying that film and making plays."
Smith has been pretty consistent for most of the year, but his tackling was a little sluggish over the past few weeks. He took the questions to heart and delivered one of his best performances of the season.
"Some people were saying we've fallen off the past couple of weeks," he said. "We just wanted to go out and play ball and have fun. That's why we play. We play for each other."
Jefferson is expected to be ready to play this week after getting cleared from a concussion that knocked him out of the Bears game and Cook could return before season's end from a broken arm. Either way, the experience Robinson has gained over the last 13 games has proven invaluable to him and the rest of the team.
"These young guys are starting to understand what this is about," defensive end Jared Allen said. "They've got a good leader in their room with Antoine. He lets them know exactly what it is. We have a bunch of competitors on this team and it showed."
Roookie defensive backs stepping up
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