For the first time in recent memory, the Vikings showed winning-caliber depth at strong safety to go along with possibly the best game of free safety Harrison Smith’s Pro Bowl-level career.
It wasn’t until Sunday morning that the Vikings knew they’d be without starting strong safety Andrew Sendejo because of a groin injury.
Sendejo isn’t a Pro Bowler. But when he goes down, bad things tend to happen. Case in point: The third play of last year’s loss at Chicago, when then-rookie Jayron Kearse took a horrible angle, missed a tackle and gave up a 69-yard run to Jordan Howard.
Things would be different in Sunday’s 23-10 win over the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Yes, Smith stole the headlines with third-down dominance that included 1 ½ sacks and a leaping, one-handed interception.
“Harry is Harry,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes. “He is going to do the way he do. Ball out.”
But for now, let’s focus on the Packers’ eighth offensive play. It started out like any other play and ended with Anthony Barr breaking Aaron Rodgers’ right collarbone and Cheeseheads saying adios to dreams of invading downtown Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII four months from now.
The Vikings were in their nickel defense, which they used all day. Smith was in single-high safety for one of the few times. Sendejo’s replacement, special teams leader Anthony Harris, was lined up over right slot receiver Geronimo Allison as the Packers came out with a four-wide look.
“My job is to come down on the slot,” Harris said. “He ran like a little bubble screen. And I went man-to-man on him.”
When left end Danielle Hunter raced around right tackle Bryan Bulaga, the play began to break down. Rodgers rolled to his right. Barr took off racing toward the future Hall of Famer.
“Plaster” is the word Vikings defenders use to describe how tightly they need to cover their guy. In this situation, the play became a scramble drill that the Vikings work on every time they play Rodgers.
Harris “plastered” Allison, whom Rodgers looked to first when the protection broke down. Had Allison been open, Rodgers completes a short pass to the flat and plays on.
But the hesitation and the time it took for the ensuing alternative throw to Martellus Bennett allowed Barr to close on Rodgers and take him to the ground after his release.
“It’s hard for me to [evaluate] Anthony Harris, but we didn’t know that he was going to have to play [until Sunday],” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I didn’t notice him, so obviously he did a decent job.”
As for Smith, Zimmer didn’t hold back, saying he played “great.”
Harris said the Vikings got more aggressive with blitzing Smith after Rodgers went out. Zimmer played that down, saying they’ve blitzed Smith against Rodgers in the past.
Both of Smith’s sacks of young backup Brett Hundley forced the Packers to go three-and-out. Both times, the Vikings turned the ball over on the ensuing possession.
The first sack was excellent disguise. Pre-snap, Smith showed a two-deep look only to sneak down and rush off the left side with Brian Robison. The other sack came when Zimmer overloaded Hundley’s blind side.
“Rodgers going out obviously changed the game,” Harris said. “They went to a young guy with [11 career pass attempts]. We were able to disguise and pressure him more.”
Smith’s fourth-quarter interception led to a field goal and a 23-10 lead. On the Packers’ next possession, Smith stripped receiver Jordy Nelson before he could secure what would have been a first-down catch.
Afterward, Smith was asked if this was the best game he’s played.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I gave up a catch on the first play of the game. There’s always stuff you can correct.”
Yes, but in this game, the safeties — both safeties — played well enough for the team that’s suddenly heading into Week 7 as the favorite to win the NFC North.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL