MINNEAPOLIS (AP)Harrison Smith had a quiet start to the season. Minnesota’s defense made even less of an impact.
The 12th-year safety wasn’t about to allow those trends to continue, or let the Vikings stay winless over four games. Smith delivered a vintage all-over-the-field performance against the Carolina Panthers, finally fulfilling new defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ goal to make him one of the most disruptive players on the field.
“I felt like I wasn’t really a difference-maker, and I’ve always thought of myself that way,” Smith said after Minnesota’s 21-13 victory. “I feel like everyone should think of themselves that way. Otherwise what are you doing out there?”
Smith had career highs with 14 tackles and three sacks, including a forced fumble that the Vikings (1-3) returned for a game-changing touchdown.
“He is a Hall of Famer. He is the greatest safety of all time. That’s what we expect out of him. He showed us that he still has it,” fellow safety Cam Bynum said. “It’s just greatness all over the table.”
Last year under defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, Smith frequently found himself in two-deep shell coverage that underemphasized his strengths. Flores is far more aggressive with his scheme. He sent Smith on a blitz 14 times against the Los Angeles Chargers, but quarterback Justin Herbert was so quick and accurate with the ball that the extra rushers hardly helped. The Vikings allowed 454 passing yards and lost 28-24.
That was by far the most times Smith has blitzed, according to Sportradar data available since 2016. Flores sent him as a rusher nine times against the Panthers with much greater success. After the game, Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell recalled his first chalk talk with Flores last winter.
“It was an exciting conversation that all centered around number 22 and getting him around the line of scrimmage, getting him involved in the rush and getting his hands on balls in coverage and making plays in space tackling,” O’Connell said. “He’s been doing it his whole career, and it’s just good to see him back in positions to make huge plays to impact football games.”
Turning Smith and the other blitzers loose made sense against the Panthers and rookie quarterback Bryce Young, but a visit by the Kansas City Chiefs and two-time NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes this week could call for a different strategy. Either way, for the Vikings to beat the defending Super Bowl champions, they’ll undoubtedly need Smith to deliver again.
“We’re the best possible version of the Minnesota Vikings defensively when Harrison Smith is an impact player,” O’Connell said, “and we’re going to continue to try and put him in positions to do so.”
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