The Vikings pass defense has been one of the few question marks this season as the team has climbed to a 7-3 record after a huge win Sunday at Dallas.
While the Vikings rank 13th in total defense, allowing 333.1 yards per game, they rank 18th in pass defense, allowing 241.9 yards per game.
One of the biggest surprises this season in trying to keep that group improving has been safety Anthony Harris.
Harris went undrafted out of Virginia in 2015, but this season Pro Football Focus ranks him as the fifth-best safety in the NFL — trailing only Marcus Williams of New Orleans, Justin Simmons of Denver, Jamal Adams of the New York Jets and Kareem Jackson of Denver.
Harris said the Vikings’ defensive backs know they have to improve.
“We have to keep continuing to improve, keep looking to improve as far as our technique, our assignments, executing better, being physical from the start at the line of scrimmage and then compete for the ball when it’s in the air,” the fifth-year veteran said. “Whether it’s through receivers’ hands, or delivering a big hit to try and jar some passes loose.”
It’s incredible that Harris went undrafted. He was an All-America pick by Sports Illustrated after his junior season, when he led the nation with eight interceptions.
“My position coach [at Virginia], Anthony Poindexter, he helped me a lot,” Harris said. “He was a former NFL player and a really good collegiate player, as well.”
In his senior season, Harris made 108 tackles, which was a career high and led Virginia. But he had a torn labrum that required surgery after the season, and that hurt his draft stock.
The Vikings signed him to a three-year, $1.58 million deal after the draft, when ESPN ranked Harris as the top undrafted rookie available. This spring Harris signed for one year and $3.095 million.
He started his career on the practice squad and credited Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray with helping him become the pro he is today.
“He really let me know how to keep my mind when I started out on practice squad,” Harris said. “How to be a professional as far as staying up on the game plan, what I need to work on and the mind-set. I would say him and [former Vikings cornerback and assistant defensive backs coach] Terence Newman were two people that helped me a lot.”
Harris leads the Vikings with three interceptions and is the only Vikings player with more than one. His seven pass deflections are tied with Harrison Smith and Trae Waynes for the second most on the team behind Eric Kendricks, who has 11.
“I try to work on my technique, my footwork, getting in and out of breaks,” Harris said. “I pride myself on studying and knowing how teams are going to attack me and then just working on my catching in the offseason and try to work on my hand-eye coordination and have good ball skills.”
He added that one player who helps prepare the defensive backs is quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“Since Kirk has been here, he has done a good job of giving us different looks,” Harris said. “He’s a top-tier quarterback. His ability to be able to recognize coverage, look guys off and throw in another direction, it really helps us prepare and get used to the things we might see in the game.”
As the Vikings get ready for their final game before the bye week, Harris said there’s no reason they can’t pass the Packers to win the NFC North.
“I think we have all the pieces here to go out and do what we need to do to be successful and take care of the division,” he said. “It is going to come down to us executing as a team, playing complimentary football.”
Green running wild
One of the unsung heroes of the undefeated Gophers squad is wildcat quarterback Seth Green, who has rushed nine times for 40 yards and three touchdowns over the past two games after totaling 12 carries for 15 yards in the first seven games of the season.
Green got the game-winning touchdown in the Gophers’ 31-26 win over Penn State on a 1-yard rush with 14 minutes, 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Green does a bit of everything for the Gophers, and he said he likes the role that he fills.
“I would say playing multiple positions has definitely been an honor, especially on this team — just doing whatever the team and coaches need me to week to week is something I enjoy and appreciate,” he said. “Getting out there and playing and doing everything I can to help me and my brothers win is something I have enjoyed and helped me grow a lot as a football player here at the University of Minnesota.”
Green rushed 76 times for 282 yards and eight scores last year, and though his rushing numbers are down, he still has five scores this season.
“We hadn’t really used the wildcat as much in the beginning of this season,” Green said. “The offense was running well, the running backs, the O-line was playing really well, there wasn’t ever really a need for it.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to make a difference in the game so I do appreciate that. I do enjoy it a lot as well, the wildcat stuff, just going out there in short-yardage situations and getting the first downs or the goal line touchdown is something I enjoy. I have a good time with it.”
Green, a Woodbury native, left East Ridge to play his senior season at Allen High School in Texas after his father took a job in the state.
He said that competition prepared him for college.
“Besides the weather in Texas, I would just say a lot more people take it seriously year-round,” he said. “That just raises the level of competition, which is something I appreciated and helped me transition from high school to college.”
But when Green, a redshirt junior, got a chance to come back and play in Minnesota he was excited about not only coming home but getting to play with the 2016 recruiting class — which includes such players as Antoine Winfield Jr., Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber, Conner Olson, Sam Schlueter and Tyler Johnson.
“Moving to Texas was a decision I made to stay with my family, we moved down there for my father’s job,” Green said. “And then coming back up here for school, I loved the area, the school, the program, all of the things that come with it. … Me and my teammates, I will be close friends with them forever.”