With the Vikings having a lot of questions on offense with the exile of Adrian Peterson, almost all of the concerns have been on that side of the ball. But the defense has just as many questions, as more of the onus for saving the 2014 season will fall on the defense shutting down opposing offenses with the anticipation being that, without Peterson, the Vikings will score fewer points.
It’s a challenge that the defense has been building on, especially safety Harrison Smith. In the months since Mike Zimmer took over the Vikings defense, wholesale scheme changes have been made. Perhaps nobody has been more excited about the changes than Smith.
As an active safety looking to make plays, Smith didn’t necessarily feel hamstrung, but he does feel his career has blossomed in the new scheme.
“Playing safety within Coach Zimmer’s defense, it helps you do everything,” Smith said. “It gives you all the responsibilities you can have on defense. You’ll see me blitzing. You’ll see me covering tight ends and running backs. I’ll play deep. I’ll play in the middle of the field. You really get to be all over the place and it makes it a lot of fun to be involved in that many aspects of the game.”
That is evident in Smith’s statistical line: He’s third on the team with 17 tackles, has one of the six sacks, one of the 11 tackles-for-loss, two of the 29 quarterback hits, one of the two interceptions, and one of the three passes defensed.
The increased responsibilities put on Smith’s plate in the Vikings defense have morphed him into more of a team leader. Despite defensive struggles last week against New England, Smith was flying around the field and keeping his teammates engaged with his enthusiasm. While he doesn’t view himself as being an on-field vocal cheerleader, he appears to have taken on that role.
“I’ve always been a high-energy type of guy when I’m out on the field,” Smith said. “I’ve never really looked at myself as a ‘rah-rah’ guy, but I’m always talking to my teammates and encouraging them. I always think we can make big plays and I keep reminding them that if we get that big play, we can turn a game around.”
One of Smith’s strongest attributes is that he is technically sound and rarely gets himself out of position and away from his assignment for a given play. That has been critical to dealing with the new officiating point of emphasis that has disallowed downfield contact, which has been a staple of playing defense for decades.
While the flags for pass interference, defensive holding and hands to face have been thrown at an unprecedented level, Smith has begrudgingly learned to alter his game to adapt to the rules changes.
“It’s a hard habit to break,” Smith said. “When a receiver gets close to you, you want to stick your hand out just to get a feel for him. It helps you to know where he’s going. You just have to adjust to it. There are going to be new rules every year. They’re probably going to make it harder every year on the defense. You just have to adapt to it and not blame the rules. Just play within the rules, otherwise you’re just going to get a bunch of penalties and that’s not going to help anybody.”
Smith’s game has been showing steady improvement in his three seasons and he sees Zimmer’s defense as being his chance to become the defensive playmaker the Vikings drafted him to be. He has embraced the coaching philosophy Zimmer has brought and is a willing student of Zimmer’s style, which at times can be a bit frontal in pointing out mistakes.
While Zimmer can be boisterous in his in-practice criticism of players, Smith has enjoyed the style, especially his responsibilities within the defense.
“Being a player, you usually end up playing for a lot of different coaching types,” Smith said. “You just have to figure out how to communicate with them and the best way to receive the knowledge they’re giving you. People say that Zim yells a lot, but, as players, we don’t see him as a yeller. He’s a coacher. He’s a teacher. I don’t how he’s perceived, but he delivers a message and I get that message and those coaching points. That’s the most important thing. Being able to know exactly what he wants us to do makes it easier for us to go out on the field and execute that.”
Part of Smith’s transformation from a young player into a defensive leader has been developing a comfort zone with his fellow defensive players. There is a lot of back and forth during games in which players are making sure to keep the lines of communication open and Smith has been front and center with trying to bring all of the back seven defenders on the same page.
“Having good chemistry back there is important, whether it’s with the other safety, the cornerbacks and even the linebackers,” Smith said. “We all have to work together in this defense. You want a strong level of communication and chemistry. You may not be able to tell it by watching, but when you have that communication, the defense runs smoother and normally we play off each other better that way. I think we have that right now and we’re going to continue to grow.”
The Vikings defense struggled last year when Smith missed eight games with turf toe and the general consensus has been that, without Peterson, the Vikings will struggle to win games. But with Smith in the middle of it, the Vikings are in a transformation from an offense-dominated team to one that hopes it can win games on the back of its defense.
“I’d like to think I’m a leader,” Smith said. “It’s not something you suddenly get or are told you have to be a leader. I think it’s something that is just in you. Chad (Greenway) is a leader. B-Rob (Brian Robison) is a leader. We’ve had a lot of players that have had that role, but it’s something that is just a part of you. If you go out and play your best every day – in games and in practice – you end up leading by example. If that makes me a leader, I’m glad.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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