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Week 17 Offers Opportunities for Young Vikings 

MINNEAPOLIS – Mike Boone was off to the races on the first play of the game.

On a day that Minnesota ran mainly with its reserves, Boone took a handoff from quarterback Sean Mannion and zipped 59 yards before he was tackled by Eddie Jackson.

"The offensive line opened the hole. It was there," Boone said.

The long run provided an early spark for the Vikings, but the next play deflated the sails a bit.

Boone bobbled a pitch by Mannion, and the ball was recovered by Bears DT Bilal Nichols.

Minnesota's second possession of the day also was cut short when Boone was unable to hang onto a pass by Mannion, and the ball was intercepted by LB Kevin Pierre-Louis. Both first quarter turnovers led to field goals by the Bears for an early 6-0 lead over the Vikings.

Midway through the second quarter and on first-and-10 from the Minnesota 1, Boone was tackled in the end zone for a safety.

Despite a few early miscues, though, Boone bounced back.

The 24-year-old made plays throughout the day, including a 41-yard run with just over a minute remaining in the first half. Boone's explosive play set up a second field goal on the day by Vikings kicker Dan Bailey.

"Teammates were there the whole time, keeping me comfortable, keeping me settled," Boone said after the game. "I started off bad, made a couple of mistakes, but tried to come back and turn it around and correct them.

"Dalvin [Cook], [C.J.] Ham, everybody – not just the running backs," Boone added. "They kept me level-headed, didn't let me get too down. The offensive line was working hard, and I feel like I had to reward those guys and keep hitting holes and exploding when it was there."

When all was said and done, Boone racked up a career-high 148 yards on just 17 carries. He also scored the Vikings lone touchdown on a 1-yard rush early in the fourth quarter. Ameer Abdullah added 22 yards on the ground and made three catches for 14 yards through the air. Ham had two carries for four yards.

"It was a great opportunity for Mike and Ameer and 'Hammer' to get in there and get some carries," Mannion said. "I think when I first got here, I was asking Kirk [Cousins] kind of about some of the guys on the team. He said, 'Wait 'til you see Mike Boone with the pads on.'

"Of course, you don't really get to see him with the pads on until the preseason," Mannion continued. "He's done a great job in those reps. … I think he's a dynamic, dynamic runner. He did a lot of good stuff out there."

Boone, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 206 pounds, called it "tons of fun" to shoulder much of the load with Cook and Alexander Mattison both inactive.

"It just excites me when I see the offensive line working as hard as they work," he said. "When I can come in and score a touchdown to reward them, as well as the defense, it feels pretty good."

The Vikings lost a close one to the Bears, falling 21-19 at home. Because Minnesota was locked into the No. 6 seed in the playoffs, however, a majority of its starters did not play.

That opened the door for multiple younger players to play the entirety of the game, including linebacker Eric Wilson and defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Both have played on defense throughout the season when stepping in for injured teammates (Wilson) or as part of a position rotation (Weatherly), but Sunday marked a full load for each of them.

"I think it's good," said Wilson. "We clinched, so some guys may be banged up, other guys may just need a little rest. I think it's a good idea. Everybody always stays ready."

Weatherly added that it's "all about keeping guys fresh" at this point of the season.

"For us to be able to give a good chunk of guys the time to recoup and get their bodies right, and give some young guys opportunities to show what they have, so [Head Coach Mike Zimmer] has more weapons for the playoffs – it's a win-win for all parties," Weatherly said.

Wilson made his presence known against a Chicago offense that stuck with its starters.

He finished the day with 12 tackles (press box stats), 1.0 sack of Mitchell Trubisky, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.

"When we can shoot our shot, I think we have a fast defense and can make plays; we can make negative plays. Even our DBs made great plays on screens on the perimeter – it was great to see that. We fought," Wilson said. "I know we've got a lot of young ballers on our team. We may not get a lot of reps, but when in doubt, we can ball. It's great to go out there and fight together and try to make an impact."

Linebacker Kentrell Brothers and rookie cornerback Kris Boyd are regular contributors on special teams but received ample playing time on defense Sunday.

Brothers totaled 10 tackles, split a sack with Weatherly, and had a quarterback hit. Boyd also impressed with eight tackles and two tackles for loss.

Aside from Danielle Hunter playing the first snap of the game at defensive end, the Vikings went entirely with reserves up front. Weatherly said the unit enjoyed playing a full game together after previously being used on a rotational basis with the starting four.

"It was fun going out there and playing with my brothers – Ifeadi [Odenigbo], Jaleel [Johnson], Jalyn [Holmes], Armon [Watts], [Hercules Mata'afa] – just the young guy D-line," Weatherly said. "We've been talking about it for a while, and for us to go out there against their starters and have it be a close one all the way up until the last-minute field goal to win the game, it was [great] for us.

"We didn't want that to happen, we wanted to walk out with the win, but it was a fun one," he added.

Odenigbo is quickly earning the attention of Vikings fans with his splashy play as of late.

The defensive end, who also has shifted inside to the 3-technique, increased his season sacks total to 7.0 with a strip sack of Trubisky in the fourth quarter.

Odenigbo recovered the fumble and ran in it to the end zone for what appeared to be his second defensive score of the year; the return was called back, however, after review determined him to be down as he scooped the football.

"I'm starting to think he could play a little running back," Boone quipped.

Zimmer was pleased with the performance of the young D-line.

"Those guys did a nice job rushing them today," Zimmer said. "[Ifeadi] continues to get better all the time. It was nice to see Jalyn Holmes get in there, Mata'afa, some of the guys that don't get to play much."

Zimmer said during his postgame press conference that it was a "really hard" decision to rest the starters.

He explained that he waited until Saturday evening to tell some players they wouldn't be be playing.

"I wanted them to prepare like they were getting ready to play," Zimmer said. "We gave obviously more guys reps during practice this week. I think you just kind of weigh the risk/reward. I like to win, so like I told everybody, any time that scoreboard is up there, my name is attached to it. But I just figured in the long run, it's better if we just play these young guys and get a chance to evaluate them, as well."