Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. stood at the goal line when Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. caught a pass at the 7-yard line during Sunday's loss in Tampa Bay.
They collided at the 2-yard line. Opting not to meet in the middle, the 203-pound Winfield stopped early to brace for a blow from the 242-pound Smith.
Advantage, Smith. The impact carried both into the end zone for a Vikings touchdown.
Smith's spry routes and displays of force Sunday signaled his return to form after missing three of the previous four games because of injuries. It's a good sign for coordinator Gary Kubiak, who anticipated a "big month" ahead to cap Smith's second NFL season, a curious one for veteran Kyle Rudolph, and a welcomed one for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
"He's a great asset," Cousins said of Smith. "It's a big boost, especially with Kyle — not having him last week. To have Irv helped us kind of stay with our normal personnel groupings and not get too crazy with the plan. He showed up big time in the game for us. I think it showed on Sunday the difference he makes."
The Vikings got a glimpse of potential life after Rudolph as Smith and third-year tight end Tyler Conklin combined for nine catches, 103 yards and a touchdown against the Buccaneers, getting open while Tampa Bay tilted coverages toward receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
Coaches limited Smith in his return from the back injury, which first appeared on an injury report Nov. 25 before the Panthers game. He didn't get into Sunday's game until the eighth play and finished with a season-low 35% playing time, behind Conklin (57%), who started for Rudolph.
Expect Smith's limitations to loosen. He looked unencumbered by either the groin or back injury while catching all four targets for 63 yards against the Bucs. And this week, for the first time since early November, Smith wasn't on the injury report. Rudolph (foot) remained sidelined on Wednesday.
"I feel great, honestly," Smith said. "I've been rehabbing very hard and just trying to take care of my body as best as possible. I have a great team that helps me with that."
A healthy Smith will be involved in the Vikings' downfield attack regardless of Rudolph's status. He was drafted in the second round in 2019 out of Alabama to be a mismatch weapon against linebackers and safeties to combat defensive attention on receivers. Not many 6-2, 242-pound people can move like Smith.
While Cousins hasn't thrown often to tight ends — 5.5 targets per game entering last week — that could change with Smith providing a little jolt. Up next Sunday is a Bears defense that, for all its talent, hasn't covered the position well in the end zone, giving up nine touchdowns to tight ends, better than only the Jets and Jaguars.
Smith may be positioned to build on what he started in Tampa Bay.
"Obviously, [Smith] does some really good things, especially in the passing game," Zimmer said. "And [the Bucs] were doubling Jefferson and Thielen quite a bit. So it gives [Smith] one-on-one situations with the linebackers, and he came through. And Conklin did, too, on a couple of the doubles.
"When teams are trying to take away your two best receivers, then those are the kind of things you have to do."
Smith's production, and even that of the 2018 fifth-round pick Conklin, further puts the 31-year-old Rudolph in a curious position after the season. The Vikings' longest-tenured player has been made a run-blocking specialist on a contract that pays him like the position's top pass catchers. Rudolph's $9.45 million cap hit in 2021 is the fourth highest among NFL tight ends.
A budding difference-maker like Smith could have ripple effects.
"My second year in the playbook," Smith said. "Just moving me to different positions and playing the 'Y,' playing the 'F,' and kind of just getting more nuances in the offense, so I can really go out there and play fast. Just trying to detail my game as much as possible and try to become a complete tight end."