Vikings safety Harrison Smith can disguise his on-field intentions so well pre-snap that coach Mike Zimmer once compared him to a “cat burglar” the way he creeps around while studying the offense.
But there was no deception by Smith on Sunday night’s game-changing play in the Vikings’ 24-17 victory over Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium. Just good instincts on his part and a real bad decision on the Packers’ part to leave one of the league’s more versatile defenders unblocked off the right side of the formation on fourth-and-1.
The score was tied 14-14. The Packers were at their 44-yard line with 7 minutes, 28 seconds left in the third quarter. The Vikings were stacked at the line of scrimmage.
“Honestly, I was kind of thinking pass there to begin with,” Smith said. “But then I saw the action of the guys up front. Bodies low. So I kind of knew it would be a run. At that point, it’s just a matter of getting back there and affecting the play.”
Tight end Lance Kendricks was lined up across from Smith. Kendricks has been in the league eight years, including the past two with Green Bay.
Why the heck didn’t he block or at least try to scrape Smith?
“I don’t know what their scheme is,” Smith said. “I’m considered a smaller guy, so I’m less of a threat than Everson [Griffen] and Danielle [Hunter] and those guys.”
But Smith plays like a hybrid safety/linebacker/end. He has three sacks and three interceptions this year. That’s a feat so rare no one else has done it this year, and no one did it last year. Giants safety Landon Collins and former Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier did it in 2016.
Smith also entered Sunday tied for second on the team in sacks. And his six tackles for loss were third behind Hunter’s 19 and tackle Tom Johnson’s seven.
When it was suggested that his résumé is “starting to suggest he can make plays behind the line of scrimmage,” Smith smiled. For good reason. He has been doing this since 2012, and even earned first-team All-Pro doing it last season.
“I don’t think it’s starting to,” he laughed, joking that he wasn’t trying to be a jerk about it.
Mike McCarthy, in what might very well have been his last Vikings game as Packers head coach, decided not to have Aaron Rodgers throw the ball on fourth down. He called for a simple dive play for running back Aaron Jones.
A dive play into the strength of the Vikings’ entire team.
Kendricks blocked down, trying to help the right tackle move Hunter. That didn’t work. Hunter made first contact with Jones behind the line of scrimmage.
At that point, Jones wasn’t wrapped up. He could have squirted forward. But Smith shot in untouched so quickly that Jones had no chance.
For good measure, linebacker Eric Kendricks threw even more muscle into what turned out to be no gain.
Vikings ball at the Packers 44.
“Man, that was unbelievable,” said receiver Adam Thielen. “That was one of four or five plays that were such huge plays by our defense. It just makes it so much easier as an offense to play free when your defense is playing that way.”
Seven plays and 25 yards later, the Vikings took their first lead of the game. Dan Bailey kicked a 37-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead the Vikings wouldn’t relinquish.
The stat sheet say the Vikings had only one takeaway. It should say two, says Smith.
“Fourth-down stops in the middle of the field are essentially turnovers,” said Smith, who had four tackles Sunday.
The Packers never recovered from that fourth-down stop and the boost it gave the Vikings defense. In the game’s final 22½ minutes, Green Bay and one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game mustered only 78 yards and three first downs.
“It was a big play in the game,” Smith said. “The big guys up front got pressure. And I just read the play.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org