There’s no doubt that one of the only reasons the Vikings even had a shot at beating the Packers last weekend was because of the outstanding play of safety Harrison Smith, who continues to be one of the best all-around defensive players in the league.
As noted in the Star Tribune, with the Vikings trailing 21-0, it was Smith who keyed a defensive turnaround that kept the Packers from scoring another point. Smith finished with six tackles, including one for a 3-yard loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection.
It was just another game in a long list of performances in which the Vikings safety made his presence felt all over the field.
The simple fact is that when General Manager Rick Spielman traded the No. 35 pick and the No. 98 pick in the 2012 draft to Baltimore in order to move up and select at Smith at No. 29, it was one of the best moves in franchise history.
The two players the Ravens got with those picks — Courtney Upshaw and Gino Gradkowski — are no longer in the NFL.
Through two weeks, Smith is tied for seventh in the NFL with 13 individual tackles and tied for seventh with three pass deflections. Only Smith and Cory Littleton of the Rams have totaled 13 tackles, three pass deflections, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery through the first two games.
And even though the Vikings are big favorites against the visiting Raiders on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the team and their fans should be ready for a big test.
Last season in Week 3, the Vikings entered 1-0-1 and were facing a Bills squad that was nearly a two-touchdown underdog, but Buffalo dominated the Vikings, who suffered an embarrassing 27-6 loss.
Become better than the best?
Since 2015, this Vikings team has been the best defensive group in the NFL. They lead all teams in that stretch in yards allowed, at 312 per game, and are second in the NFL — trailing only the Patriots,— with 18.7 points allowed per game.
But the simple fact is that in that stretch of time this team has reached the playoffs twice and missed them twice, and if the game plan is going to be considered a success under Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer, they need to make the playoffs this season.
Smith told me the defense had to continue to find ways to improve throughout the year.
“There is a ton of things you can always talk about,” he said. “Situational football, running game on offense and defense, third downs, red zone, turnovers, limiting big plays, getting big plays — those are all big things.”
The Vikings defense ranks sixth in the NFL with 33 points allowed, but the 680 yards allowed ranks 14th. One area where they have stayed strong early in the year is on third down, where they have allowed just seven conversions on 23 attempts.
For the most part, Smith said, he feels like this defense is moving on from any success or failure of the past.
“We just want to improve across the board as a team,” he said. “We look at every game and see what we did right, see what we did wrong, and try to learn from those things. But this is a whole separate year. We want to do the best we can this year.”
And while Smith has once again jumped out to a great individual start, he said that isn’t what he’s focused on.
“I have goals that I always set out, just things that I want to do,” he said. “But none of them matter unless we are winning football games. Those are really the only goals that matter.
“There are things that I want to improve on, but the thing about the NFL is, there are a lot of different things that come up throughout the year, a lot of ups and downs, no matter how many games you’re winning. You need to be flexible and know how to adapt and win football games.”
Fast start will be key
The Vikings should have a winnable game against Oakland. The Raiders have totaled just 332 yards per game in their first two contests — tied for 22nd — and their 17 points per game rank 25th.
But Smith said that the message coming out from the coaching staff is that the Vikings need to start like they did against Atlanta, where they allowed 12 total points but all in the fourth quarter, instead of like they did against Green Bay, where they allowed all 21 points in the first quarter.
“Gotta start faster, it goes back to execution,” he said. “Just running and hitting, reading our keys, playing how we’re coached to play.”
Smith said that for this defensive group, it’s not about holding a team to a certain number of points but about establishing their identity early so that they can control the game.
“At the end of the day we lost [Green Bay], so if we start faster we have a chance,” Smith said. “That’s all that matters. We already know we’re going to fight and we’re going to play hard. We just have to keep them out of the end zone.”
• The Vikings offensive line through two weeks has helped the Vikings rank first in the NFC in rushing yards at 185.0 per game. And they are tied for third in allowing just two sacks of Kirk Cousins. For comparison, the Packers are 11th in rushing at 95.5 yards per game and 24th in sacks, having allowed seven sacks on Aaron Rodgers.
• The Gophers are just 6-21 all-time at Purdue, where they will kick off Big Ten Conference play next week, but they have won two of their past five there, including a 41-13 victory in 2015.
• After their first three games, the Gophers ranked No. 13 in the nation in average time of possession at 34 minutes per game, Wisconsin ranked first with an average of 37 minutes, and Iowa ranked sixth with an average of 36 minutes.
• According to USA Today, the Gophers paid a combined $1.25 million to North Dakota State and Georgia Southern to play at TCF Bank Stadium. For comparison, Michigan paid Middle Tennessee $1.6 million for their game on Aug. 31 in Ann Arbor.
• Bill Pohlad, who doesn’t work on the day-to-day operations of the Twins but is on their executive board, had a big hit when he directed “Love and Mercy,” a film about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson back in 2014. His next film is another music movie called “Dreamin’ Wild” and the big news is Pohlad will also write the film, the first time he has done that in nearly three decades.
• Former Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar has over 30 homers, 10 triples and 100 RBI for the Diamondbacks — that has only been accomplished two other times since 2000.
• Spotrac reported that 62.5% of quarterbacks in the NFL this season were drafted in the first round. Two exceptions are Cousins, who was drafted in the fourth round, and former Vikings QB Case Keenum, who went undrafted.