Irv Smith Jr. played a career-high 81% of snaps Sunday during the Vikings' 27-23 victory the Broncos, whose cornerback Davontae Harris watched as the rookie tight end glided past on a post route for a 10-yard touchdown that sparked the comeback.
Smith's first NFL touchdown showed growth from the 21-year-old, who read the coverage and found the open space on an apparent option route.
"He made a good read on the touchdown catch," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. "Every day I see him getting better, running better routes, lining up. I think it's just part of the process of becoming more reliable."
The second-round pick's growth has come at an opportune time for the Vikings. Since wide receiver Adam Thielen injured his hamstring Oct. 20 at Detroit, Smith reset his career high in playing time nearly every week while catching at least three passes in each of those five games.
"I just come with the mind-set I can't be stopped, and this offense can't be stopped," Smith said Monday. "Each game is more experience under my belt."
Smith said his confidence has grown with each reception, a good early sign after this summer's growing pains learning a complex position. The Vikings have deployed Smith, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound fluid athlete, as an in-line tight end and out-wide receiver — from where he caught the touchdown. He has helped the two-tight end offense find its stride.
"You're not sure if you're going to get nickel or base defense when him and Kyle [Rudolph] are in there together," Zimmer said. "We can exploit those two areas by either running against little guys or throwing against big guys. Having a weapon like [Smith] has been really good."
One emphasis during the Vikings' bye week will be the uneven pass defense, which ceded five more passes of at least 20 yards against Broncos quarterback Brandon Allen in his second NFL start; another one was thrown by receiver Courtland Sutton. The Vikings defense hasn't ranked worse than sixth in big pass plays (of at least 20 yards) during Zimmer's tenure.
After 11 games, the defense has already given up 40 such plays, tied for 25th in the league.
"We need to get better in pass defense," Zimmer said. "So, that'll be a big emphasis for us as coaches and players as we start moving forward. We've got to get better."
Cousins' best game?
A day after quarterback Kirk Cousins led four touchdown drives, Zimmer labeled the performance his "best game" in Minnesota. Cousins, who leads the NFL with 177 throws since his last interception, threw three touchdowns as the Vikings did not punt after halftime.
"The [54-yard touchdown] post to [Stefon] Diggs was an outstanding ball," Zimmer said. "Just seeing what he was getting, where he was going with the football, his accuracy I think was 83 percent or something like that. It was really, really good."
'Make the most of it'
Stephen Weatherly's job as the Vikings' No. 3 defensive end has primarily been to supply interior pass rush in a third-down package, while starters Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen rarely come off the field with both over an 85% playing rate. Weatherly, in his contract season, has five run stops and one sack while playing about 30% of the snaps.
"Yeah, I'm happy to get out there and make the most of it," Weatherly said. "There's definitely times when I could've got the quarterback down or been better in pass rushes."