Sunday NFL insider: Vikings' Smith laments end of hard-hitting era for safeties

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 10:01 PM

Policing of upper-body shots leaves safety conflicted.

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Browns safety T.J. Ward (43) avoided a possible fine by going low to bring down Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on Dec. 8, but the result was a season-ending torn ACL for Gronkowski.

Photo: Steve Senne • Associated Press,

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Harrison Smith is a throwback safety trying to figure out how to play a position that’s increasingly foreign to him because of the NFL’s zealous enforcement of rules against hitting offensive players in the head.

“The game has changed over time, for good or for bad,” the Vikings second-year free safety said. “People talk about safeties that used to cause people to fear coming over the middle. Now, I don’t think anyone fears coming over the middle because there are no consequences anymore. It’s an offensive game. That’s just how it’s built.”

As Smith prepared for Sunday’s return from a turf-toe injury that sidelined him for eight weeks — he was activated Saturday — he and everyone else saw what has been discussed all week as a classic example of the ugly flip side of conditioning defensive backs to hit low.

A week ago, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a pass down the middle of the field and took a hard, direct shot to the right knee from Browns safety T.J. Ward. A day later, ESPN reported that Gronkowski was the 41st player put on season-ending injured reserve because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury. With three weeks left in the season, that’s already a 64 percent increase over 2011 (25).

“I’d say right now that Gronkowski would rather get hit in the head,” Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said. “Officials are going to err on the side of caution. That’s fine. But the other alternative is you take someone’s knees out.”

Smith called the decision Ward had to make on that tackle “kind of a no-win situation.” The rules say don’t hit high, but an unwritten rule among players is to avoid direct attacks on the knees.

“People say, ‘Oh, you can hit him in the middle,’ ” Smith said. “But it’s kind of hard to control when you’re trying to get the guy on the ground.”

Smith said he finally relented and worked on lowering his target area after a couple of fines and penalties last season.

“And there were a couple of times where I hit guys not even at the knees, but the hip area, and they got up saying, ‘Man, why do you have to hit me low?’ ” Smith said. “And it’s like, ‘I hit you where they told me to. I don’t know where else to hit you.’ ”

Smith said he understands the safety aspect as the league attempts to prevent head injuries and the potential long-term problems that come with them. But he also wishes he could play the position like Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater, two of his hard-hitting idols from a different era.

“I just like old-school football,” Smith said. “They can make all these rules, but a coach once told me, ‘It’s a violent game played by violent individuals.’ Injuries are going to happen. It’s part of the game.”

Three observations …

• Players routinely complain about playing on Thursdays. And, frankly, they make a good point that the league is more concerned about making money than player safety when it comes to Thursday games. But with all this complaining, you’d think the home team would be dominating on Thursdays. Not exactly. The Chargers’ upset in Denver this week gave the road teams a 7-10 record this season.

• Chargers receiver Keenan Allen caught only two balls Thursday night, but he no doubt shot to the front of the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year race because both catches were highlight-reel touchdowns.

Allen leads all rookie receivers with seven touchdowns.

• Robert Griffin III will be fine once again when he’s paired with a coach who isn’t at a point in his career where he’s just plain sick and tired of coaching football and dealing with the media.

Two predictions …

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Atlanta - LP: J. Teheran 2 FINAL
Philadelphia - WP: C. Hamels 9
Washington 0 FINAL
Miami 8
Boston 4 FINAL
Minnesota 4
Detroit 2 FINAL
Houston 3
Toronto - WP: C. Hynes 9 FINAL
Boston - LP: D. Hinojosa 7
Tampa Bay - WP: J. Norberto 3 FINAL
NY Yankees - LP: C. Whitley 0
St. Louis 5 FINAL
NY Mets 4
Los Angeles 4 FINAL
Kansas City 4
LA Angels 1 FINAL
Oakland 4
San Diego 8 FINAL
Chicago WSox 2
Chicago WSox 12 FINAL
Seattle 4
Cleveland 2 FINAL
San Francisco 5
Milwaukee 7 FINAL
Chicago Cubs 11
Arizona 3 FINAL
Cincinnati 0
Texas 4 FINAL
Colorado 10
Pittsburgh 3 FINAL
Baltimore 3
Detroit 78 FINAL
Charlotte 102
Philadelphia 93 FINAL
Washington 106
San Antonio 103 FINAL
Orlando 91
Indiana 87 FINAL
Boston 100
Brooklyn 100 FINAL
New York 98
Chicago 91 FINAL
Milwaukee 95
Dallas 135 FINAL
Oklahoma City 131
Sacramento 111 FINAL
Houston 115
Toronto 113 FINAL
Minnesota 99
Denver 84 FINAL
Utah 98
LA Clippers 126 FINAL
Portland 122
New Orleans 113 FINAL
LA Lakers 92
Toronto 3 FINAL
Buffalo 4
Philadelphia 4 FINAL
Pittsburgh 1
Edmonton 1 FINAL
Anaheim 5
Colorado 1 3rd Prd 7:04
San Jose 3
Loyola-Chicago 63 FINAL
ULM 62
UCLA 69 FINAL
Michigan 65
Temple 58 FINAL
West Virginia 66
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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay NoonX19-13 ot
Nov 2 - vs. Washington NoonX29-26
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago NoonX21-13
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay NoonX24-21
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina NoonX31-13
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets NoonX30-24 ot
Dec 14 - at Detroit 3:25 pmX16-14
Dec 21 - at Miami NoonX37-35
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago NoonX13-9

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