Before the start of the season, I asked Vikings safety Harrison Smith if he had any personal goals, and while he said that first and foremost he had team goals in mind, there was one thing he wanted to do: Get his hands on more turnovers. He accomplished that in last week’s 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay, grabbing an interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Last season, Smith finished with only one takeaway, a fumble recovery, after averaging 4.25 per season his first four years in the league.
He said the defense as a whole made some big plays in that game to get their first takeaways of the season.
“Those are plays that I think are the result of playing good, team football,” he said. “Trae [Waynes] just made a great play on his. [Andrew] Sendejo doing his job, getting a good read. Mine was really just kind of reaping the benefits of Eric [Kendricks] and Sendejo doing a good job and tipping the ball up.”
Still, Smith knows that heading into Sunday’s matchup with Detroit, the Vikings defense has a ways to go to get to where it wants to be as a unit.
“It has only been three games, so we’re doing a lot of good things,” the two-time Pro Bowl pick said. “We’ve done some good things in the run game, and need to tighten up a little more in the pass game. We’re really just trying to improve every week. We’ll see where the chips fall at the end of the year.”
The Vikings are giving up 340.3 yards per game, 20th in the NFL, and 20.7 points per game, which is 12th.
More concerning is the 277.7 passing yards opponents have averaged per game. The Vikings have the NFL’s 27th-ranked pass defense.
How do you correct it?
“Just tighter coverage, really just playing our responsibilities,” Smith said. “Nothing major. Our [pass rush] guys were getting after them all game. When you’re up three scores you’re playing more to win the game. We’re onto Detroit and looking to correct some things.”
Another great QB
If there is one thing that Smith and the Vikings defense can hang their hat on, it’s the fact that they have gone up against some of the league’s toughest quarterbacks to start the season in New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston.
Now they get Matthew Stafford, who recently signed the richest contract in the history of the NFL. Stafford is 7-7 in his career against the Vikings and has averaged 252.4 passing yards per game against them.
This season, Stafford has thrown seven touchdown passes to only one interception, although he has averaged only 226 passing yards per game.
“Stafford is a guy we obviously play a lot and definitely have a lot of respect for his game and what he does and how he can create plays, get out of the pocket, run and throw,” Smith said. “He’s a big-time weapon, and we have our hands full this week.”
Gophers depth an issue
I don’t think what happened Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium was any surprise to Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck.
The Gophers didn’t play anybody in the nonconference schedule. Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee were a combined 5-7 heading into Saturday, and the record of the five teams they had beaten was 6-16.
Fleck had made it very clear that you can’t compare last season’s 9-4 squad with this year’s team for any number of reasons but especially because of the lack of depth.
The Gophers lost four top players facing Maryland, and then losing safety Antoine Winfield Jr., their best defensive player, on Saturday really turned the tide.
“We’re not deep enough,” Fleck said. “We don’t have enough talent in terms of top to bottom. We had to pull some redshirts this afternoon, especially when Antoine went down.”
And few teams can afford to turn the ball over. The Gophers did it twice.
This team does not have a deep offensive line, and Saturday that was a big reason why the Gophers rushed for only 80 yards compared to the Terrapins’ 278.
“We threw the ball a little more this time because they were putting eight or nine guys in the box and loading up the box,” Fleck said. “There is a difference between loading up the box in Big Ten play and loading up the box in group of five play at times. Our guys have to be able to make plays. It might be a different story if we catch the first one and do not have the interception. Those are story changers.”
Last season, Rodney Smith averaged 89.1 yards per game and Shannon Brooks averaged 65.0. Saturday, Smith carried 18 times for 43 yards and Brooks 12 for 39.
During the week, Fleck talked about the great playmakers for Maryland, and you saw that in the play of Ty Johnson, who rushed for 130 yards and a score, and D.J. Moore, who had 90 yards receiving and caught a ton of third-down passes, with a touchdown and a big 24-yard run.
Don’t expect any big miracles at Purdue next week, where the Gophers have had a history of struggling. The Boilermakers have a bye week right now and played pretty well against Louisville and Michigan, two of the better teams in the country.
• C.J. Ham, the Vikings fullback out of Duluth Denfeld and Augustana, was praised by starting running back Dalvin Cook for his all-around game. The 24-year-old Ham has only one carry, but it was for a 1-yard touchdown, and he also caught a pass for 12 yards last week. “Very important,” Cook said. “You have a key guy like C.J. at fullback that can catch the ball, run the ball, and run-block, pass-block, can do it all. He’s a key piece to the offense and a hidden piece to the offense. A lot of the things he does fly under the radar.”
• Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is No. 8 in the NFL with a 100.1 passer rating, continues to improve. “You can just see how comfortable he is in the offense,” Edwards said of the league’s highest-paid player. “The other thing he’s done is moving around in the pocket a lot. He’s scrambling to run and scrambling to throw.”
• Twins rookie reliever Trevor Hildenberger, who has played a big role in his team’s playoff-bound season, recalled what it was like to be selected by the Twins in the 22nd round out of the University of California in 2014: “I was actually at a birthday party for my mom, barbecuing, and I was on the grill when the scout called me and told me I was selected. It was an exciting day for me and my family and a great opportunity that the Twins provided for me to come play professional baseball.”
• Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, spoke this past week about how things are going with the Andrew Wiggins deal: “I think it just has to do with that Andrew has gone away from his agent and is now sort of representing himself with advice from others. I think he just wants to be cautious and be sure he is doing the right thing. He has all the information and I’m confident that just give him some time, and we’re not pushing him, that we’ll get this worked out.”
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org