Close your eyes and open your mind and it’s not hard to imagine Harrison Smith, arguably the best all-around safety in the NFL today, thriving in another era.
Barreling into the backfield to tackle Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung on one of legendary coach Vince Lombardi’s Power Sweep runs.
Drilling former Packers wide receiver James Lofton over the middle.
Pouncing on a risky throw from the old gunslinger, Brett Favre, and then racing back the other way, something he often does after his interceptions.
His timeless game could translate to any decade as football has evolved over the past century. But on Sunday night, Smith will stand out on a field where many legends have played and dozens of battles between the Vikings and the Packers, two bitter border and divisional rivals, have taken place.
The stage cannot get much bigger in the regular season. It’s Week 17 at Lambeau Field with an NFC North title on the line and a football-crazed nation tuning in, and the Packers have another generational talent in quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“This is kind of how you draw it up,” Smith said. “It’s a division rival, someone we haven’t had a lot of success against recently. So we’re just trying to keep doing what we’ve been doing and just play tough, physical football.”
The Vikings will follow the lead of Smith, their contact-loving, route-jumping, quarterback-thumping safety, a silent on-field assassin who prefers to let his play do the talking for him. Somehow Smith still does not get much recognition nationally, though that could soon change with the Vikings set to make their first playoff appearance since Smith’s rookie season.
“He’s a quiet, old-school guy,” safety Antone Exum said. “He’s not a huge vocal guy, but that’s a testament to who he is. He’s more about action.”
Playing both running back and safety during his high-school career down in Knoxville, Tenn., Smith usually focused on the defensive backfield as he watched NFL games on television. His formative years coincided with a golden age of safety play in the NFL. Steve Atwater was the first he gravitated toward.
Smith remembers watching the former Denver Broncos safety take out not only Packers wide receiver Robert Brooks with a monster hit late in Super Bowl XXXII, but also Broncos cornerback Randy Hilliard and himself.
“It was at the end of his career,” Smith said. “But he smacked everybody.”
As a teenager, Smith loved watching John Lynch. Then came Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Brian Dawkins, Bob Sanders and, too briefly, Sean Taylor.
“There have been so many good players to watch, even in the short period that I’ve been alive,” said Smith, who will turn 27 next month.
Smith didn’t model his game after just one of them. Instead, he tried to pick and choose traits from each of his favorite safeties. And flashes of all of them show up in his game — Reed’s range, Polamalu’s blitzing, Lynch’s tackling.
On 415 of his 727 snaps this season, Smith dropped into coverage or manned up with a potential pass-catcher, according to Pro Football Focus. He has been used as a blitzer 32 times, generating pressure about a third of the time. And on 280 snaps as a run defender, he has missed just four tackles.
“I think a lot of those guys could do a lot of things. It just depends on what scheme you’re in,” Smith, a 2012 first-round draft pick, said. “I’m fortunate enough to be in a system where [coach Mike Zimmer] wants us to do all of those things. I’m just lucky to be here and happy to be here because of that.”
Low in the polls
Last season, Smith was the only defender in the NFL with at least five interceptions and three sacks. This season, he was just as disruptive before a knee and hamstring injury forced him to miss three of the past five games.
Surprisingly, though, Smith has yet to be honored with a Pro Bowl selection.
“There’s a lot of guys I think should be Pro Bowlers,” the 6-2, 215-pound safety said. “There are guys I watch around the league that I think are very good players and I don’t hear about them either. So it’s kind of how it goes.”
But Smith does have the respect of his fellow safeties, including former Dallas Cowboys standout Darren Woodson, who went to five Pro Bowls under Zimmer.
“As much as I love Earl Thomas, Eric Weddle and guys like that, they just sit in the middle of the field,” Woodson said. “They’re asking Harrison to walk down into the box, create the eight-man front, fill the backside C gap, get to the front side on runs that are away from him, cover the tight end, blitz on the outside. They ask him to do so much. … The value that he brings is unbelievable.”
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who is now an analyst for ESPN, gushed about Smith in November in a separate conversation about Zimmer’s defensive overhaul.
“Harrison Smith is by far the most underrated player in the league today,” Bowen said. “He gives you everything you want. I think he’s kind of the prime example of what Minnesota has on defense right now — young, fast, athletic and versatile.”
To the house
Smith’s interception of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning last Sunday night was shades of Ed Reed, the ball-hawking former Ravens free safety.
Lined up as the single-high safety on the left hash, Smith quickly read Manning as he dropped back in the pocket. As soon as Manning turned his head toward wide receiver Rueben Randle, Smith pivoted and streaked straight to his left. He leapt to snatch Manning’s overthrow and returned it 35 yards for a score, his franchise-best fourth career interception returned for a touchdown.
“He’s a kid with great vision. He sees things, understands routes. We try to teach him to eliminate routes — what routes can affect him, what routes can’t affect him,” Zimmer said. “Then obviously, he’s got to be able to read the quarterback and break and take the right angles and catch the ball.”
Smith said he realized “pretty much at that snap” that Manning was going that direction. And he knew the defensive play call gave him the freedom to leave his spot as the last line of defense and make a break toward the ball.
His athletic gifts are apparent, but he loves the cerebral side of football, too.
“There’s a lot of things that you watch and prepare for that don’t even come up,” he said. “I’m not saying that was one of those times, but when it works, it makes the days when you’re at home watching film on your iPad all worth it.”
Of course, intercepting Rodgers is not as easy. He has thrown 155 straight passes against the Vikings without an interception. The last Viking to pick him off was Smith late in his rookie season. It came at the end of a trick play, and he can rattle off the details about it without hesitation.
Smith said that few, if any, NFL quarterbacks are as challenging to defend as Rodgers. With his quick release, effortless arm strength and play-extending mobility in addition to his high football IQ, interceptions are hard to come by.
“You’ve just got to be honest with everything,” Smith said. “It’s hard to really go for stuff because he’ll pump-fake you, buy some time and then throw it over your head.”
Smith, whose recollection of the Vikings-Packers rivalry only extends back to the Favre years and when a young Randy Moss fanned its flames, is understandably preoccupied with Rodgers and the 2015 Packers.
But for a brief moment this week, Smith, the under-the-radar playmaker who is a perfect fit for today’s NFL, considered what it would have been like to defend one of the other great quarterbacks in Packers history, like Bart Starr or Favre.
“It’s always fun to watch different eras of ball,” Smith said. “I take pride in being a complete player. … I think that if you’re physical and tough, that could stretch to a lot of different eras. And that’s how I like to consider myself.”