Note: This is the first of four offseason snapshots looking at the peaks and valleys of key 2017 contributors for the Vikings.
When Mike Zimmer said the Eagles attacked some of the Vikings’ strengths in a blowout loss in the NFC title game, he might as well have been talking about safety Harrison Smith. Smith put together the kind of season that forced him into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. He led all NFL safeties in the ballot box while being selected by 45 of 50 All-Pro voters. The value he brought had cornerback Xavier Rhodes interrupting interviews to campaign for his teammate’s DPOY candidacy.
So mysterious, then, was Zach Ertz’s 36-yard catch and run or Alshon Jeffery’s 53-yard touchdown grab while Smith trailed both plays at the end of the first half in Philadelphia. The what-if game pervades the early parts of that blowout: What if Everson Griffen’s reach over Halapoulivaati Vaitai disrupts Nick Foles? What if Anthony Barr made the third-down tackle? What if Smith and Terence Newman didn’t lose Jeffery for a 21-7 hole before halftime?
Smith’s typically-Nostradamic vision was seemingly gone against the Eagles. The egg still shouldn’t tell the tale of his season, and what it means moving forward. Since he’s one of four cornerstone Vikings defenders signed through the 2021 season, let’s take a deeper look at Smith’s impeccable year marred by an unsatisfying finish.
A Swiss Army Knife
Smith’s usage has evolved over the course of four seasons under Zimmer and this Vikings coaching staff. Pass rush was an area first sharpened, which we’ll get to later. But one thing was needed to further free up Smith in Zimmer’s system — a reliable partner. From Mistral Raymond to Jamarca Sanford to Robert Blanton, the Vikings cycled through safeties in Smith’s early seasons. The growth of safety Andrew Sendejo, particularly as a centerfield option in deep coverage, has allowed Zimmer to utilize Smith more as the Vikings’ own hybrid safety/linebacker that was all the media rage not long ago.
Only one safety had fewer missed tackles than Smith’s two while accruing at least 15 run stops, according to Pro Football Focus. His production up front started right away in Week 1 against the Saints. Three New Orleans drives traveled inside the Vikings’ 10-yard line. They produced just nine points, starting the NFL’s eventual No. 3 red-zone defense in Minnesota, according to Football Outsiders.
The Vikings often stopped teams with lighter personnel. Nickel, or five defensive backs, was the primary defense at a nearly 75-percent clip. Stout play against the run, particularly from defensive backs, was a big reason for their success.
Below, Saints running back Mark Ingram is stalled because Smith undercuts right tackle Zach Strief. On the next snap, Smith corrals Ingram on third down to force the field goal attempt.
The Vikings’ second-ranked run defense, which topped the league allowing only 59 first downs on the ground, relied on Smith as a fill-in defender capable of collapsing tackles or the edge. Both Vikings safeties played well in that regard during the 14-9 win in Atlanta. Their speed resulted in three illegal block in the back penalties by the Falcons.
Smith drew two of them.
Few leaks sprung
Opponents threw deep on the Vikings with little success. Minnesota allowed 35 completions of 20 or more yards, the fewest in the league and fewest for the Vikings this century. Their play against quarterbacks really hit a stride after a bumpy stop in Washington out of the bye week. In the final seven games, quarterbacks including Matt Ryan to Cam Newton to Jared Goff averaged just 172.3 passing yards and combined for three touchdowns and six interceptions to cap the regular season.
Even when offenses, like the high-scoring Rams, took calculated deep shots against the Vikings they often fell flat. According to PFF, Smith was one of just seven NFL safeties to not allow a touchdown in 16 games. He was one of two also with five interceptions. Sendejo was one of 20 safeties tabbed with a single touchdown surrendered.
Smith entered the league pegged with strengths as an intelligent, read-and-react zone defender. All of that obviously rings true while thriving as the brains of the Vikings secondary. With shutter speed and a long stride, Smith’s closing speed allows him to take chances a lesser safety wouldn’t get in Zimmer’s system. His pre-snap ruses were on display in the Week 11 win against the Rams, finding himself seven yards within the line of scrimmage before dropping deep for one deflection.
Whether by manning up against a team’s top tight end or helping cover a No. 1 receiver, the Vikings leaned heavily on Smith in coverage. Smith’s improved man coverage is on display in the second clip, when he deflects a pass to 6-foot-5-inch tight end Tyler Higbee.
It began to unravel at the end of the divisional playoff win against the Saints. The Vikings allowed 55 points in the final five quarters of the 2017 season, including 17 points during the fourth quarter of the Saints’ comeback attempt. Yet the Saints and Eagles took differing approaches. Drew Brees got the ball out quickly. Foles played more like Cam Newton, unafraid to stand in the pocket and look for the deep shot. Foles completed 4 of 7 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns on his deep attempts, all coming in the first three quarters.
The Eagles went after Smith in the process. Below you’ll see a third-and-11 blitz stalled, a first-down completion to Zach Ertz with Smith in man coverage, a third-and-1 pick play on Smith and then the big touchdown to Jeffery.
No Vikings defensive back blitzed more than Smith (28), or even came close, doubling the next in Terence Newman (12). The Vikings didn’t blitz all that much last season, ranking in the middle of the pack. Still Smith continued to grow even in fewer pass-rush snaps. His 10 total pressures, according to PFF, are the second most of both his career and among NFL safeties last season. He had 2.5 sacks, including one on third down of the playoff win against the Saints.