TEMPE, Ariz. – Tony Jefferson’s been standing on the sideline, watching other rookies take the field, patiently biding his time.
He’s been waiting for another chance to rewind the clock to the first half of the season when Jefferson, an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma, was the rookie safety du jour for the Cardinals. He played 47 snaps in Week 2, and saw 58 and 31 in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus.
He’s played a total of seven snaps since.
That’ll change Sunday when Arizona plays its biggest game of the season, Week 16 in Seattle with a playoff berth still available, but for now, barely out of reach. Safety Rashad Johnson is doubtful for the game with a high ankle sprain, meaning Jefferson is next man up with fellow rookie Tyrann Mathieu out for the season with a knee injury.
“Personally, I feel like I’m going to be ready,” Jefferson said. “I’m made for this type of stuff. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity. I haven’t been on defense as much as I was earlier in the season. I’m back at it.”
He’s spent the past three months working twice as hard in the classroom as his teammates who play on a regular basis. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles made sure of that.
“We make sure our guys who aren’t starting and playing know twice as much because they don’t get the reps,” Bowles said. “They get mental reps. You can test them and you quiz them and you make sure they’re sharp because you’re gonna need them at some point in the year.
“You never really leave them out in the cold.”
It might’ve been chilly for Jefferson standing on the sideline for the past 11 games but the coaching staff didn't forgot about him, especially after he replaced Johnson last weekend. Jefferson's pressure on Tennessee quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick forced an interception in overtime, which led to Arizona’s game-winning field goal.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians praised Jefferson’s ability to make plays when he’s given the chance but was quick to point out that Jefferson still doesn’t have enough experience to play an entire game at safety.
“But he’s going to,” Arians said with a chuckle. “That’s how you get experience, you play. He’s fine. He’ll do his job.”
In case he doesn’t, Curtis Taylor is waiting in the wings.
Taylor, who was cut by the Cardinals after training camp and was re-signed to the practice squad a couple days later, earned a spot on the 53-man roster on Dec. 10 when Arizona placed Mathieu on injured reserve. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2010 with San Francisco, but, like Jefferson, whom he’ll back up, Taylor has been waiting for a chance.
“It’s not like it’s my first rodeo dealing with it or whatever,” he said. “It’s the NFL -- somebody goes down, somebody else has to step up.
Even after not seeing the field for so long, Taylor isn’t nervous or anxious or worried about playing.
“When you’ve been playing this game for so long, nerves is not an issue,” he said. “It’s more excitement than anything. I’m looking forward to it. Great opportunity. Great opportunity to get in the playoffs. I have nothing to be nervous about.”
Neither Jefferson nor Taylor have time to be nervous.
They won’t have a chance to ease their way back onto the field. The playoffs are on the line. Sunday is the type of game players strap on their pads for.
Sunday likely won’t go as smoothly as it would’ve had Mathieu or Johnson been healthy, but cornerback Patrick Peterson isn’t concerned that Jefferson won’t come to play.
“He’s a fast, ferocious safety,” Peterson said. “He scans the field, the back end pretty well. As a young guy the most important thing is communication, being a guy that pretty much doesn’t have that feel of the secondary now making the different checks. That’s going to be the hardest part for him.
“It’s not a doubt in my mind he’s going to come out and play a 110 percent.”