Rookie DBs coming up big for Vikings

Rookie DBs coming up big for Vikings

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) 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 night 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.''

NOTES: Peterson was held out of practice with an abdominal injury. Frazier said he expects the star running back to be ready for the Rams. ... Winfield was given the day off and Jefferson practiced on a limited basis.


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Ian Mahinmi knows his foul troubles are hurting the Wizards, and he's working on it

USA Today Sports

Ian Mahinmi knows his foul troubles are hurting the Wizards, and he's working on it

Already with starting center Dwight Howard out due to injury, the remaining Wizards big men put head coach Scott Brooks in a difficult spot on Thursday night in their season-opening loss to the Miami Heat.

Three of his bigs - Ian Mahinmi, Markieff Morris and Jason Smith - all got into early foul trouble, each picking up their fourth foul by the end of the third quarter. As a result, Brooks had to go small by necessity and that contributed to the Wizards getting out-rebounded 55-40 on the night.

Mahinmi was particularly efficient in collecting fouls. He got his fourth just 15 seconds into the third quarter. That, plus matchups, contributed to him playing only 11 minutes and 38 seconds in the game.

"Last night, I was a little bit disappointed in myself," Mahinmi said.

Mahinmi has had well-documented foul troubles since he signed with the Wizards in the summer of 2016. Last season, Mahinmi finished 12th among all players in total fouls and led the league with 9.6 per 48 minutes. 

When he's the starter, that becomes a real detriment.

"As a backup, I never really look at my fouls. Never. I knew I had six to give. I knew I was playing on limited minutes, so I never really paid attention to my fouls. Now, as a starter, it's a different story," Mahinmi said.

Howard may be back soon, but Mahinmi's foul problems have hurt the Wizards even in games where he came off the bench. And given Howard was fifth in the NBA in fouls last season, some nights both may get into trouble early.

Mahinmi said he has been working on limiting the whistles and may have to get smarter with which plays he chooses to be more aggressive on.

"I've gotta do an extra better job keeping my hands up and stuff like that," he said.

Mahinmi noted how the league is trying to call the games a bit tighter this season. He referred to some of the calls as "ticky-tack," but understands those are the rules and he has to abide by them.

One strategy that could help is by having a dialogue with the referees throughout a game and that's something Mahinmi has learned to employ over the years.

"I've been in this league for 12 years, so I kind of know them all. It's always good to have a talk with them. I feel like it's part of the game," he said. 

"They're not perfect, they're going to make mistakes. We make mistakes all of the time. So, I feel like it's okay to go talk to them and be like 'what did you think on that? Or, my bad.' In the heat of the moment, it's important to keep that respect."

Mahinmi can provide value particularly on the defensive end and his absence was noticed on Thursday, as the Wizards allowed 22 offensive rebounds. According to NBA.com, only Jeff Green registered more boxouts than Mahinmi against the Heat. That was despite him playing fewer than 12 minutes.

The Wizards need Mahinmi to be available and in order for that to happen, he has to stay out of foul trouble.



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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed


2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

The Washington Nationals outfield was one of the most intriguing position groups of the 2018 season. Two of the team's star figures, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, resided out there more than 200 feet from home plate.

Fittingly, we'll start our position review series taking a look at the most talented group of players on the Nationals. 

Overall, they were outstanding. Each of the nine players brought something different to the team. Whether it was Harper doing Harper things, Soto continuing to break teenager records, or Michael A. Taylor filling in nearly every other day, there was versatility each night.

Good news for the Nationals is most of these guys will be back. Of all the outfielders still on the roster, only Harper is set to become a free agent. 

The unit is young and has strong depth. Potentially it also has Howie Kendrick, who missed a majority of the season and is still under contract for a year. 

Honestly this could be a position group that has some of their bench pieces on the trading block during the offseason. There are holes spattered around the rest of the roster and there are outfielders to spare with or without Harper coming back.

Without further ado, here is a look at each of the outfielders this past season. 

Bryce Harper

There are multiple ways to look at Harper's production this season. In some ways he was productive, in others it was one of his worst years on record. 

He took care of the important stats. With 34 home runs it was his second-highest dinger output of his career (only behind his MVP season in 2015) and tied for the seventh-most in the National League. Although a slightly irrelevant stat, he did have a career-high 100 RBIs as well. 

As a whole his batting average was .249. But if you take into account how poor his start to the season was, and a .214 batting average with that, the just turned 26-year-old finished nicely. 

Spin it as you will, his OPS was .889 with a MLB-leading 130 walks. 

Harper is still the best position player with a Curly W on his chest. If he returns, that title will not exchange hands next season. 

Juan Soto

Call him a kid. Call him our son. Call him a phenom.

Whatever you call him, he is the future of the Nationals. With Soto in the outfield it makes the idea of the team not wanting to sign Harper sound a little less crazy. 

For your convenience, here is a list of all of the accomplishments he had this past season.

What makes it all even more impressive is that he did not even play the full season. He was called up in the middle of May.

His 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, 121 hits, .292 batting average, .923 OPS all came with him only playing three-quarters of a season.

Oh and he turns 20 in less than a week. 

Adam Eaton

A stint on the 60-day disabled list did not prevent Adam Eaton from having the best hitting season of his career. He had career-highs in batting average (.301) and OBP (.394) only playing in 95 games. 

He's never been a long ball hitter, but getting him on-base is his strongest asset. In nearly every contest the seven-year veteran batted lead-off for the Nats. However, the Nationals were unable to take advantage of him getting on base. Eaton only came around to score 55 runs. 

With Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto typically batting behind him, that is a total that should be much higher. 

Of note, 2019 will be his final season under contract for the Nationals. This season, perhaps even the offseason, Washington will need to decide if he is one of the right pieces going forward. Re-signing Harper is sure to be a big factor in that decision. 

Michael A. Taylor

Initially filling in for the injured Eaton, Taylor had a formidable 2018 season. Performing on the field and at the plate earned him a start in the regular rotation. 

Of the regular contributors he did have the lowest batting average in the outfield. His speed however is what he brings to this squad. 

Holding the fort at center field, alongside whichever pair of Nationals at his side, he makes it difficult for balls to get behind him. 

Defensively he is a huge asset to Washington. Offensively he does need to pick it up. 

Andrew Stevenson

This season was the most action that Andrew Stevenson has seen since being drafted by the Nationals in 2015.

At 24 with 75 at-bats, he mustered a .253 average for a decent year as a call-up.

The jury is still out for Stevenson, but the Nats have plenty of time to decide what move to make with him. The next two years he is under team control and is likely a tradable piece.

Victor Robles

Everyone was waiting to see Victor Robles, the Nationals top prospect, get some consistent playing time with the Nats. 

This season he got that time in September, with the team pretty much out of postseason contention.

There was nothing too staggering about Robles during that month, but he did piece together a .288 batting average. The big highlight was this monster homer he hit.

He'll get more time in 2019. Without Harper he'll likely be on the team's daily roster.

Moises Sierra

Probably the only National on this list that you haven't heard of but the Nats took a chance on Moises Sierra in the minor leagues.

In the lineup for 27 games in Washington, Sierra did not do much on the offensive end, batting .217. He's still a fringe major leaguer and has a lot to prove to get extra time with this group of players.

Howie Kendrick

At the time the loss of Kendrick was considered detrimental for the Nationals. He was the team's primary second baseman to start the season and his injury led to Daniel Murphy seeing significant time.

Still, he did play in the outfield, although he has lost the speed from his youth in Los Angeles. 

He had a phenomenal offensive start to the season no matter what spot he was at in the batting order. 

Likely he will not be an option in the outfield, given the new crop of players that proved themselves this season. But, do not be surprised if Kendrick has to spend some time in the grass if Harper is not on the roster next season.

Kendrick is guy that the Nationals cannot afford to not be in the batting order. 

The Other Guys:

There are two other outfielders that saw action in 2018, Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista. 

Goodwin was traded to the Kansas City Royals before the trade deadline. He had limited production with the Nats over the past three seasons. With Soto, Taylor, and

Robles now in a position to step in, the organization simply did not have room for him. 

Bautista got sent back to the minor leagues and will likely stay there unless there are some unforeseen injuries.