Harrison Smith inched toward the line of scrimmage until he stood across from a receiver in the slot on third-and-15.
At the snap, Smith sprinted toward the Buffalo Bills backfield. He didn't have enough time to get his hands on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he did the next best thing. He leaped and batted Fitzpatrick's pass down with both arms.
That singular play in the Vikings preseason home opener Friday night was significant because the Vikings coaching staff not only showed enough confidence in the rookie safety to send him on a blitz on third down, but more important, Smith made a play. A timely play that allowed the defense to get off the field.
"The coaches have kind of been saying, 'If we call your number on a blitz and you don't make a play, we're probably not going to send you again,'" Smith said. "When you hear that, you know it's time to make a play just so you can keep doing it."
The Vikings sure hope that's the case with Smith, the first defensive back the organization has selected in the first round of the NFL draft in nearly two decades. Smith started at free safety Friday and played 28 snaps in the first half of a 36-14 victory over the Bills.
He didn't see a ton of action his way as he primarily dropped into deep coverage. He collected two tackles, came down into the box in run support twice and provided coverage on the tight end off the line on two occasions.
His performance was encouraging in that he made a few plays and didn't look confused or out of place, precisely what he's shown throughout training camp. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said he saw no reason Smith shouldn't remain the starter.
"He's going to continue to get better and better as he gets more time," Frazier said. "We're counting on him to be the starter. That's why we drafted him where we did."
The early reviews of Smith have been overwhelmingly positive, fueling a belief inside the organization that he possesses the right makeup to become a future leader and long-term fixture in the secondary. It's only preseason so unbridled optimism should be tempered for now. But Smith provides a ray of hope at a position that has looked utterly bleak in recent years.
The Vikings' collective performance at safety has been a mess since Darren Sharper walked out the door after the 2008 season. In the absence of true playmakers, that position produced a catalog of missed tackles, bad angle pursuits and busted coverages. Their safeties grabbed only nine interceptions combined the past three seasons. Their defensive line and linebackers produced 11 in the same span.
Yes, the Vikings' Tampa-2 scheme restricts a safety's ability to gamble and freelance on the back end, but that doesn't explain all the missed opportunities that could have resulted in momentum-changing plays.
The Vikings believe Smith will bring that element to the secondary, but general competence would be a nice start.
The most encouraging aspect of Smith's game is his field awareness. He reads a play and reacts to it, plays under control. He just seems comfortable in that setting.
"Once you're out there on game day, that's time for you to have fun and make the plays that you know you can make," he said. "That's when you should fit in."
Smith looks like a good fit for this team. Jared Allen described Smith as "real quiet" but that's not necessarily a bad thing as long as he continues to display a competitive fire that has made everyone take notice.
Smith opened eyes last week when he nearly tangled with Percy Harvin in practice. That takes guts for any player given Harvin's status, much less a rookie in the second week of training camp. Smith shrugged off the near dustup, saying only that "it's football." He also downplayed suggestions that he plays with a hard edge and salty attitude.
"I don't really think that I have that attitude or anything like that," he said. "I think I just play hard and I love to play. I'm just going to play hard no matter what."
No need to apologize for that. The Vikings need more of that mentality in their secondary and defense as a whole. Some consistency and reliability would go a long in shoring up the safety spot, too.
Maybe Smith will even get his name called on some blitzes. He didn't do anything to discourage that idea Friday night.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org