Harrison Smith’s helmet pivots side to side like a quarterback.
This time, Smith, the leader of the Vikings secondary and one of the NFL’s highest-paid safeties, is looking for affirmation that he’s taken the right place among linebackers. It’s third-and-1, the Titans lead 10-3 and threaten to pad the lead in the third quarter.
He picked the wrong side. The first teammate to notice was Chad Greenway.
“It’s not going to be too exciting,” Smith cautioned of the explanation. “Just reading run and playing football, really not much more to it than that.”
That’s where Smith is numb, the equivalent of Jeff Gordon topping out a Toyota Yaris. There’s a lot packed into what he describes as “reading run,” aside from the physical superiority needed for the “playing” part.
Mental recall of the week’s film study, split-second communication and trust define success for modern NFL defenses, especially one as adaptable as Mike Zimmer’s scheme. Perhaps no safety is smarter and more reliable than Smith, who has made his money off anticipating what offenses are going to do before it’s done.
On this particular play, the Vikings’ call is straightforward and downhill. However, a potent Week 1 mixture of minimal reliable film and a self-described ‘exotic’ Titans offense meant there could be times when not everyone was on the same page.
“Going into the first game you can’t really expect certain things,” Smith said. “You have to be ready to make adjustments and that’s what we did.”
Trust in his teammates, communication and a little luck gave Smith the tools to correct a rare pre-snap mistake, ending with his arms clasped around Derrick Henry’s right knee to stop the first of six Titans’ second-half drives that ended in a punt or turnover.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Sharrif Floyd subbed out for Shamar Stephen on the obvious third-and-1 running down. Before Floyd reached the sideline, Smith had already pinpointed where he’d settle in before the snap. The Titans started off in an offset I-formation with balanced tight ends, and Smith walked to the weak side.
“That was kind of a… They kind of had a funky formation,” Smith said. “So we were just trying to sort that out from the start. Really, I should’ve started on the left to begin with.”
As soon as Titans receiver Harry Douglas [above] begins motioning, Greenway  raises his left arm for Smith to follow. He’s supposed to be on the defense’s left, where a second motion from Titans tight end Anthony Fasano [below] fortified the strong side of the play. Before Fasano steps back to motion that way, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr  joins Greenway in calling Smith over to the left side.
“The linebackers handle setting the front and everything,” Smith said. “You know, they pretty much run the show and we kind of handle our business on the back end. And I do a lot of communicating there, but the safeties and linebackers talk a lot. They need to know where we are and we need to know where they are, so they handled it, really.”
Smith corrects himself before the Titans snapped the ball from an unbalanced I-formation. He had adequate time to adjust because Tennessee’s double motion chewed up 13 seconds between center Ben Jones touching the ball and quarterback Marcus Mariota receiving the snap. Smith quickly switched sides, where he and Barr blitzed the anticipated run.
“You need to know where you fit,” Smith said. “The guys up front help make that play and I got to kind of be the one that people saw make the play. But, you know, Linval [Joseph] on that play completely plugged the middle and Anthony [Barr] comes off the edge and takes on a blocker, maybe two of them. So, really that’s like the dirty work.”
Untouched, Smith slides off the outside hip of fullback Jalston Fowler and uses his speed and 6-foot-2 length to tackle Henry for no gain, forcing a punt. Smith went unblocked as Stephen took up an interior double team, Fasano blocked down on Eric Kendricks and Fowler, the lead blocker, took on Barr. The pulling guard, Quinton Spain, led up through the hole, which Smith went around, to block Terence Newman.
The play sparked a strong defensive effort in the second half.
“I think right around that time was when we kind of started settling down,” Smith said. “It’s as easy as that. Just calming down and everybody doing our job and taking care of our responsibility. I think maybe the next drive or so, Eric [Kendricks] scored that touchdown. And we just kind of started rolling from there.”
After allowing 11 first downs on only four first-half drives by the Titans, the Vikings stiffened up and surrendered just 57 yards total over the next six drives — starting with the three-and-out capped by Smith’s tackle.
On-field communication proved critical for a defense that is lauded by NFL opponents as disciplined as they come. Smith said it’s also a benefit of continuity after the Vikings returned nearly every defensive snap from last season.
“I’m not a vocal guy off the field, but on the field I’m trying to be,” Smith said. “You want to over communicate so everyone knows where we fit. Really, sometimes things are going to get hectic and stuff is gonna get crazy on game day. You’re going to see some things you haven’t before and you have to talk to each other.”