In most situations where a new coaching staff is coming in and changing the culture of an organization, getting reps together for the starters is critical. In the pass-happy era of the NFL in which we currently live, that chemistry is even more necessary.
Had Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton not been so innately familiar with one another, their joining as the starting safeties for the Vikings could have been a work in progress. But as teammates since both came out of high school and earned scholarships to play at Notre Dame, they are probably just about as familiar as any two safeties in the NFL, despite making only their second NFL start together Sunday at St. Louis.
“I’ve played with Blanton for like seven years now,” Smith said. “Luckily, we had that chemistry already from college. We played four years in college and we’re coming up on (year) three here, so we’re familiar with each other. I’ve played with (Andrew) Sendejo before and (Antone) Exum is coming along nice. Having chemistry among all of us is good.”
The plan to have Smith and Blanton start together experienced a setback early in training camp when Blanton suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him for much of training camp. But thanks to their experience together, once Blanton returned to the field, he and Smith were able to pick up where they left off.
“We communicate a lot because we know each other well,” Blanton said. “That’s made this whole process of learning the new defense easier because we are so familiar with each other.”
While he was laid up with his balky hamstring, Blanton wasn’t just sitting idly by waiting for his hamstring to heal. He used the time to ingest Mike Zimmer’s defensive playbook and he used his down time for some serious book learning.
“I just wanted to focus on getting healthy and keeping up with the playbook,” Blanton said. “This was an opportunity I had worked to get and just wanted to get back to do my job to the best of my ability.”
In 2012, Blanton was in the mix to compete for the starting safety spot opposite Smith, but another training camp injury took him out of the mix to land the starting spot. He sensed the same thing could be happening again this season and pushed himself hard to get back on the field and compete for the job because, as many players have learned, you don’t make the club when you’re in the tub.
“The biggest thing for me was to go out there and compete every day,” Blanton said. “The coaches knew and they were going to make their own decisions about the players. I worked on my technique every day and making sure I paid attention to the details of my job.”
Smith and Blanton missed out on a lot of work time during the preseason, but the Vikings played well at all levels – from the starters to the players who would eventually be released. Although they didn’t get as much time as they intended on the field together, Smith believes the momentum the Vikings built during their 4-0 preseason can carry over into the regular season as the defense looks to erase the bad memories of the 2013 season and build a new legacy in 2014.
“The preseason was good preparation for us, but now that we’re getting into real games and seeing what we do when it counts, we’re all just excited and ready to take that next step,” Smith said. “We want to be a defense that makes plays and be a defense that this team can count on.”
Their time together on the field has been minimal to date, but both believe that the new defense being installed is one that is going to turn the Vikings around in a hurry. The momentum that was built through offseason practices, minicamps, training camp and the preseason has given the Vikings defenders a renewed enthusiasm that has them itching to get the regular season started and seeing what they’ve been learning over the last six months put into practical application.
“I think everybody has really taken to this defense,” Blanton said. “We have great coaches and this defense is going to be much-improved. All we have to do is stay focused on our assignments and execute.”
As Blanton and Smith prepare to start alongside one another again, it’s been something both of them have been looking forward to since both came to the NFL in 2012. There is a new outlook and it will be their first game executing Zimmer’s defensive scheme, and Smith can’t wait to get 2014 started because, although Sunday will be Zimmer’s first game as a NFL head coach, Smith has the feeling like he’s been in his defense for a long time.
“I was thinking about it just the other day that it feels like I’ve been in this defense for a couple of years with all the time we’ve had, learning to speak their language, what they’re thinking and what they’re talking about,” Smith said. “There’s still a lot to learn, but it does feel like we’ve jumped in and started moving in the same direction.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Smith and Blanton reunited, excited
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