Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson (22) returns an interception for a touchdown Sunday.
CHICAGO – The Cardinals defensive backs are a close-knit group, and there's nothing friends enjoy more than playfully ribbing each other.
All throughout training camp, safety Tony Jefferson got heat from his position-mates because he didn't record an interception in his first two NFL seasons.
He finally broke through in Sunday's 48-23 win over the Bears, and did it in style with a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. During the run back, he dropped Bears quarterback-turned-defender Jay Cutler
with a stiff-arm, and in postgame interviews brought up his high school prowess carrying the ball.
"This stuff isn't new to me," Jefferson said. "I gave him the stiff-arm from the running back days."
If that was supposed to impress Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers, it didn't work. Jefferson is no longer interception-less, so that's something the secondary can no longer hold against him, but Powers had a fresh new critique after the game, centered around Jefferson's running back history.
"He got recruited as a running back out of high school, and there's a reason why (Oklahoma) made him play DB when he got there," Powers said. "They made him believe he would be a running back, and as soon as he got to campus, it's 'Hey, you're a safety.' Obviously he doesn't have those skills.
"Everybody has a stiff-arm in their repertoire. And Jay Cutler, I think, just took a bad angle. So his stiff-arm wasn't really that effective, just a missed tackle by Jay Cutler. And it's going against a quarterback so it's not valid."
As much as Powers delighted in taking Jefferson down a peg – and causing Jefferson to laugh uproariously two lockers
over – the pick-six was a clear game-changer in the victory.
It helped settle a defense which had been shaky up to that point, and increased the Cardinals' lead to 28-14. Cutler hurt his hamstring on the tackle attempt and never returned, and the Cardinals defense clamped down the rest of the way.
Earlier in the quarter, Jefferson allowed a completion to tight end Martellus Bennett which set the Bears up on the 1-yard-line, and Jeremy Langford punched it in to tie the game at 14. He was covering Bennett again on the interception.
"He bounced right back," coach Bruce Arians said. "That was huge."
It wasn't Jefferson's only big play of the game. He had a sequence soon thereafter where he ran up to make a tackle on running back Matt Forte on one play and then went out into coverage and held Bennett to a short gain the next. He finished with a team-high nine tackles in all.
It wasn't even a guarantee Jefferson would play as he entered questionable with a hamstring injury. But he said the trainers did a nice job getting him ready, and then Jefferson did the rest on the field .It made it even more meaningful because Jefferson's big day came on his son's birthday, something even Powers couldn't dismiss.
"It's a pretty special moment for him," Powers admitted.
But that was it for allowances. A few seconds later, back to the trash talk.
"Out of the seven DBs that we have, Tony's probably the least athletic one," Powers said. "Not saying that's a bad thing because we've got some pretty athletic guys in the room, but he's probably the least athletic."