When Harrison Smith left the Vikings with a severe case of turf toe against the Carolina Panthers, he was tied for the team lead with two interceptions and third on the team in tackles.
Times have changed since his Oct. 13 injury-induced departure, both for Smith and the Vikings defense as he prepares to re-enter the lineup this Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, although he won't start.
Instead, the Vikings will take a cautious approach working him back into the lineup as they gauge his progress.
"It's obviously going to take a long time for it to get back to where it was, but it's structurally sound," Smith said of the foot on Wednesday. "I can move around, I can do what I want to do, so it feels good."
Prior to the injury, Smith had missed only five defensive snaps and had played every defensive snap in the three games leading up to the Carolina game.
His emergence and immersion back into the lineup is being anticipated by teammates.
"Whenever you can have all your guys healthy, that's a good thing," said CB Josh Robinson, who is expected to miss at least one more week with a chest injury. "We know our defense is doing much better and playing good ball right now without both of us. It's really just making sure we're both healthy and especially him."
Teammates routinely refer to Smith as a playmaker, a title that holds true when considering his statistics. Through the Carolina game, the fifth of the season, the Vikings had seven interceptions and Smith had two of them. Since then, they have added only four more in the last eight games.
"He really brings a lot to the defense. He's a big playmaker. We look up to him and we feed off his energy," said Jamarca Sanford, who will continue to start alongside Andrew Sendejo this week. "I know me personally, he brings the best out of me when I'm playing with him because I'm trying to make as many plays as he's trying to make. It's a competition, but it's a good competition where you don't want to let him down and he don't want to let you down so it's like we're bringing the best out of each.
"Getting him back, the way Sendejo has been playing, he's been playing lights-out. Me, him, Sendejo back there, we're just looking forward to keep getting better and keep growing as a group and continue to get better. With him back there, it means a lot to us and I'm really ready to see him back in action. He's a big playmaker. He's turns the ball over and he just makes plays."
The turnovers have been lacking since Smith's departure.
The Vikings have actually improved slightly in points allowed per game and opponents' average yards per play without Smith, but the turnovers are a different story.
After the first five games, the Vikings were even in turnover ratio. Since losing Smith they are minus-7. In the first five games with Smith, the Vikings had recovered five fumbles; in the eight games since, only two.
This week, they face Eagles QB Nick Foles, who has thrown only one interception against 20 touchdowns this season. The Eagles, with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, also bring a fast-paced approach to offense, which might tax Smith too much in his first game back if he were put in a starting, full-time role.
"It will be a challenge, we've talked about that when we're trying to figure out what his role will be in this ballgame," Frazier said. "The tempo of this offense, it will be challenging for a guy who hasn't played for as long as he hasn't played. So, we'll see how it goes, but we definitely want to get him in there. It's just a matter of how much can he take."
As Smith has recovered from his turf toe, he has been doing plenty of cardiovascular exercises, but he admitted all along that nothing can truly replicate a football game.
"There's nothing quite like when the lights come on, especially with this offense. They're faster than most," Smith said. "Really, just see how it goes, because you can't simulate it."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings look forward to return of playmaker
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