Life in the NFL is hard, as rookies everywhere are finding out after their first taste of action. While in your typical year rookies have the preseason to be phased into the realm of professional football, the rookie class of 2020 has to endure a baptism by fire. We're playing for keeps right out of the gate.
Which rookie performers were able to make the most of the pro action in Week 8? We, along with our partners at Panini, are recognizing the best of the best each week. Here are the Defensive Rookies of the Week from each conference for Week 8 of the 2020 NFL season.
AFC DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE WEEK
OLB Alex Highsmith, Pittsburgh Steelers
When you think of the Steelers, you think of good defense—physical, hard-hitting defense. Somehow, they’ve continued to find good defenders that embody how they’ve always wanted to play defensively. Although they have dominant edge defenders in T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, rookie Alex Highsmith came in on sub-packages and made his presence felt.
Highsmith made critical plays on Sunday, leading the Steelers to their second 7-0 start in franchise history. His interception led to a touchdown when their offense had a bit of a challenging time scoring points. He finished the day with two tackles, one interception, and one PBU. His interception came on a “y stick” high-low play that he was beaten on earlier in the first half. He took a mental note and figured they’d run that play again in the second half. When they did, he capitalized on it this time and secured the interception.
Interestingly, Highsmith has been seeing increased playing time due to an injury to Mike Hilton. So defensive coordinator Keith Butler installed a “run sub-package” which includes Highsmith. At this rate, he is giving the Pittsburgh fan base and coaching staff reason for optimism if they happen to lose Dupree to free agency.
NFC DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE WEEK
EDGE D.J. Wonnum, Minnesota Vikings
It seems like Vikings fans had seen this picture far too often: Aaron Rodgers driving his team down the field for a heart-wrenching, game-winning drive that would be capped off by a Hail Mary or something close. It was only a few weeks ago when the Vikings had lost in a similar fashion to the Seahawks. But this time would be different, thanks to rookie D.J. Wonnum.
Wonnum has taken on a bigger role since the Vikings lost Danielle Hunter for the season and traded Yannick Ngakoue. His sack of Rodgers sealed the game for Minnesota, who was in desperate need of a victory in Week 8. For that, he was awarded our NFC Defensive Rookie of the Week. He finished the game with one sack, but also had four pressures on the day, ultimately helping Minnesota to just their second win of the season. He is seemingly growing into his role, trusting his athleticism, and will ultimately prove to be an important asset down the stretch.