EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As emotions boiled, Vikings safety Harrison Smith kept his cool.
Players on both sides needed to be separated throughout the Vikings’ 37-17 victory against the Jets on Sunday. At the end, Jets receiver Robby Anderson hurled a ball toward an official. He apologized afterward for the outburst. Part of Anderson’s frustration involved Smith — the man who ripped a deep ball out of his hands and later intercepted a Sam Darnold pass intended for him. The third-quarter interception was first tipped by cornerback Xavier Rhodes and led to a 52-yard return that resulted in a Dan Bailey field goal, giving the Vikings a 20-7 lead.
It was one of four Minnesota takeaways.
“That wasn’t really my play,” Smith said. “That was Xavier Rhodes’ play. He made that play. I just kind of caught it. I really wanted to get in the end zone, so I got to work on that a little bit.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer circled takeaways as a point of emphasis when preparing his players during the week. He informed them the turnover battle is one the Vikings needed to win against an opportunistic Jets defense, which entered Sunday with 15 takeaways in six games.
The Vikings stole that competition, too, winning 4-0 in thieving the football.
Turnovers don’t come much easier than the first. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson pounced on a botched handoff from Darnold to running back Isaiah Crowell in the second quarter.
“It was something we emphasized,” Johnson said. “Coach Zim wanted the turnover ratio to be in our favor this week, so we put forth the effort to try to make that happen. Putting in the work during the week paid off.”
The Vikings’ practice work included a defensive line drill mimicking strip-sacks on the quarterback. While the defense didn’t pry the ball from Darnold, the rookie presented them with other opportunities.
Cornerback Holton Hill intercepted Darnold on his first snap after Rhodes injured his ankle and left the game in the fourth quarter. Hill, the undrafted rookie, jumped a route run by Jets receiver Andre Roberts.
“As [Rhodes is] walking off the field, all the guys were [saying], ‘All right, Hollywood, it’s your time,’ ” Hill said. “The next thing I know, the ball is coming into my hands. Man, it was a blessing.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson following Hill’s interception. Cornerback Trae Waynes added an interception with 4 ½ minutes remaining.
Zimmer said pressure on Darnold and mixing coverage schemes contributed to the picks. It took some seconds for Zimmer to think through the Vikings’ three interceptions before answering what contributed to them.
“Yeah, it’s a good problem to have,” Zimmer said. “I think there were a couple where we confused him a little bit and a couple guys just made good plays.”