MINNEAPOLIS — Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson were two key draftees for the Minnesota Vikings this summer, taken with the team’s second and third picks in the first and third rounds of April’s draft, respectively.
Smith and Robinson then carved out roles quickly in Minnesota’s retooled secondary, playing key parts since the beginning of the season. Smith has started every regular season game. Robinson has started only five games, but has been integral as the nickel corner. Because of their experience, the veteran of the defensive backfield, Antoine Winfield, said the two are no longer rookies. They showed it in Sunday’s 21-14 win against the Chicago Bears.
Robinson intercepted his second pass of the season to help Minnesota go up 14-0 early in the first quarter and Smith made his third interception — second returned for a touchdown — to give the Vikings’ their winning margin on Sunday.
“Oh, no, no: we’re like 13 games in, no you’re not a rookie,” Winfield said. “After five games, you have to drop that title.”
It’s a title Smith and Robinson gladly will give up as important members of a re-built secondary. After allowing opposing quarterbacks to pass for historically big numbers last season, Minnesota shored up its defensive backfield with the selections of Smith and Robinson as well as acquiring cornerback A.J. Jefferson in a trade right before the regular season. The moves have helped the Vikings withstand the loss of top cover corner Chris Cook for much of the season and not fall apart like they did last year when injuries hit.
Minnesota allowed the seventh-most passing yards in the NFL last season, while giving up a league-high 34 passing touchdowns and tying a league low with eight interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks had a 107.6 quarterback rating. The Vikings entered Sunday with the league’s 13th-ranked pass defense.
Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler finished 22 of 44 passing for 260 yards Sunday with a touchdown and the two interceptions by the rookie defensive backs that turned the tide in Minnesota’s favor and gave running back Adrian Peterson all the help he needed.
“With them young guys being able to step up, being able to work with guys like ‘Toine and the guys back there, we have such depth at DB right now,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “They’re playing well back there and we’ve got to keep that up. And not let them out to dry, we’ve got to make sure we put pressure on the quarterback like we did today, make him make some throws to those guys and hopefully get the ball back to our offense.”
Smith became the first Vikings’ rookie with three interceptions in a season since safety Orlando Thomas returned his 56 yards for a touchdown in 1995.
Robinson nearly had his own score. His first-quarter interception and run back was ruled a touchdown, but replays overturned the play when he narrowly stepped out of bounds at the 5-yard line. Peterson scored his second touchdown of the game three plays later.
“It’s not really that disappointing when the offense gets it a couple plays later,” Robinson said, later adding. “I’m pretty comfortable now. I enjoy really settling in and starting to try and play faster, and get back to where I need to be.”
Minnesota hopes the rookies can keep stepping up with three games remaining and the playoffs still a possibility.
“These young guys stepping up, it’s Week 14, they’re not rookies anymore,” Peterson said. “It’s their turn to make plays and they did that today. It was huge for us.”
Their teammates don’t look at them as rookies, and maybe they haven’t looked at themselves that way in a while either.
“(We’re) just kind of out there playing, really,” Smith said. “I think this whole rookie class has a lot of confidence. We don’t go out there thinking we’re rookies and, ‘Oh, I hope I don’t mess up.’ I think we go out there thinking we’re going to make plays.”
Jefferson suffers concussion: The Vikings’ depth could be tested though as Jefferson left the game late in the fourth quarter with a concussion.
Jefferson, who has been another key member of the secondary and has been a starter while Chris Cook is on the mend with his broken arm, suffered the concussion when he tried to tackle Bears running back Matt Forte and collided with two teammates. Jefferson went down and was motionless with his arms outstretched. After being tended to by medical personnel, he got up and walked off under his own power and went to the locker room.
“We’ll have to wait and see how he progresses over the course of the week,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Other than that, we came out pretty healthy.”
Griffen knows a fine could be coming: Everson Griffen was penalized for unnecessary roughness when he struck Cutler in the head on a play in the fourth quarter. Cutler still had the ball and was being tackled by Jared Allen when Griffen came in low and hit Cutler, knocking him back.
Cutler played nine more plays on the drive, but was later taken out with a neck injury. Griffen appeared in a tough position, unable to likely change his approach on Cutler that late in the play, but knows he could be receiving another fine from the league after getting hit with a $15,750 fine for a late hit on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers last week.
“It’s difficult,” Griffen said. “You(‘re) supposed to have the targets on, but you know, he still got the ball in his hand and he’s going down. I’m just going to make a tackle. I’m not worried about where I throw my body. He’s out the pocket. I’m just making a tackle. When it comes down to it, I may get fined. That’s the league these days. We just take it game by game. As long as we win the game, I (could) get fined a million times as long as we win. So, I’m happy we won.”
Rudolph held without a catch: With leading receiver Percy Harvin out for the rest of the season, tight end Kyle Rudolph was expected to be one of the players picking up the slack. Rudolph entered Sunday second on the team with 45 catches.
However, Sunday was the third game this season Rudolph was held without a catch. And he seemed frustrated after the game.
“Yeah, that’s something you have to ask (offensive coordinator Bill) Musgrave about,” Rudolph said.
The big tight end was targeted just twice Sunday. Rudolph had caught 18 passes in the previous three games and had scored a touchdown each game. He leads Minnesota with eight touchdown catches.
“(I) definitely want to contribute,” Rudolph said. “I practice all week to contribute. I do everything I can to contribute.”
Frazier said part of the game plan was to get the ball to Rudolph. Quarterback Christian Ponder attempted 17 passes, completing 11 for 91 yards.
“We tried a couple different times and didn’t have success,” Frazier said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t looking for him. They did a good job of covering him. Kyle’s been a big part of our pass offense throughout the season and we won today without him having any catches. If you had told me that would be the case, I would have said, ‘That’s not going to happen because we’re going to target him and he’s going to have catches.’ But credit to our offense and credit to our team being able to overcome that. Kyle’s been instrumental to our passing offense, but great job to our offense.”