Harrison Smith admits he’s not much of an interior decorator, at least when it comes to artwork on his walls.
He has only two pictures hanging in his home. One is of the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Smith always found them interesting, even before he started taking lessons to become a pilot.
The other picture was a gift from his sister and has an inscription that made her think of her brother.
“Good things come to those who hustle” the picture reads.
“She knows exactly who I am,” Smith said.
Yes, he loves to hustle. And hit.
Those two qualities partly explain why Smith has become the best safety in the NFL and leader of a relentless Vikings defense.
Smith has an innate ability to read a play and then close like a Lamborghini to wipe out a threat. Sometimes he looks like a blur running from deep safety to pop a ball carrier.
“He can start 10, 20 yards back and make a tackle at 3 yards,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “You’re like, ‘Wow, where did he come from?’ ”
Two plays last week at Carolina highlighted that range. The first one came on a delayed handoff to Fozzy Whittaker. Smith was positioned 16 yards away when Whittaker received the handoff.
For a split second, a hole opened and the play looked like it might result in a sizable gain. But Smith read it perfectly and reached Whittaker in 2.3 seconds to deliver a wallop.
Whittaker gained 2 yards.
“In my experience, the quicker you can close the gap, the easier the tackle is,” Smith said. “I was trying to get down there as quick as I can.”
Smith made another hustle tackle when he stopped a screen play that Carolina had set up well. Smith came from the opposite side of the field and snagged the ball carrier with a swan-dive tackle.
“I was trying to do my best Brian Dawkins impression,” he joked.
Smith basically shrugged when pressed on it.
“There’s nothing special about that play in my mind as far as being an athlete,” he said. “If you’re on the field you should be able to make that play because you love the game and you want to go make that play.”
Not every safety makes those plays, though. Whether it’s effort or talent or combination of many factors, Smith has a knack for being around the ball and then making something good happen.
Those splash plays show Smith’s versatility in being able to play deep as a roamer or hugging the line as a thumper. Mad scientist Mike Zimmer moves Smith all over the defensive formation to maximize his skill set. It’s a perfect marriage between player and scheme.
“I’ve always tried not to be a one-trick pony,” Smith said. “I’ve always wanted to be good at everything. Maybe not the best at one thing, but I like to think I can play wherever anybody puts me.”
He has earned that trust by being a playmaker. He makes plays because he’s naturally instinctive and does his homework.
Smith loves watching football — NFL or college, doesn’t matter — to see if he can figure out why offenses run certain plays.
“I don’t know 95 percent of the time,” he said, laughing, “but the more you can learn and anticipate things, that to me is what instincts are.”
Zimmer credits Smith’s vision for allowing him to sniff out plays. He’s also clever at identifying pre-snap tips from studying offensive linemen on video.
The rest is hustle and heart.
“I’ve always held myself to a higher standard than anybody else,” he said. “That’s because I love the game and want to be as good as I can.”
Smith’s play has justified the Vikings’ decision to make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid safeties with a five-year extension worth $51.25 million.
Smith deflects praise in favor of crediting the entire defense. And he’s right. That unit has been so dominant because it’s a collective effort. They don’t necessarily have a “best” player on defense.
The Vikings have a compelling argument, though, that they have the league’s best safety.
“I’ve been fortunate to play in this defense,” Smith said. “I’m having a blast right now.”