Despite strong play, Smith self-critical

Harrison Smith could be the Vikings’ best defender, but he was a harsh critic of his missed plays on Sunday, saying to not come away with an interception was “terrible.”

Harrison Smith is second on the Minnesota Vikings defense in tackles (25), is one of two players with an interception, and is the only one with multiple passes defensed (four).

Still, Smith, with Pro Bowl aspirations and talent, is clearly bothered by the plays he didn’t make against Drew Brees in a 20-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Smith and rookie cornerback Jabari Price were the last players off the field Wednesday after catching dozens of footballs launched out of the JUGS machine at close distance. It was a clear statement that Smith was bothered by the interceptions that could have been.

“You don’t get a lot of opportunities as a defensive back to catch the ball, so when you do you should catch it,” Smith said.

“There were a couple of them. Honestly, every ball that you touch I feel you should be able to catch. I should have caught a few of them.”

With 1:36 left in the first half, Brees dropped to pass and tried to hit TE Jimmy Graham with a short out route. Smith had perfect coverage and undercut the route, getting both hands on the ball but was unable to secure the interception. Instead, he was left slamming his vacant hands on the turf and thinking about the potential score that got away.

“This past game, I could have done a lot of things different that could have changed the outcome of a game,” Smith said.

That was one of them. Two plays later, he got his hands on another Brees pass 30 yards downfield that looked like a solid pass breakup. But in Smith’s mind, anything he touches should be an interception. That one would have required incredible athleticism to catch the high throw and get his feet down inbounds.

“I’ve seen receivers do it (get their feet dragged in bounds), so I expect myself to be able to do it,” he said. “To have that many chances and not get one interception is terrible.”

Realistically, Smith has been anything but terrible. He is the third-ranked safety by Pro Football Focus’ grading system and likely has been the Vikings’ top defensive player this year, if not the past couple of years.

But Smith’s standards are high.

“I feel like I’m a guy that needs to make plays and help the team in that way. If I would have caught one of those balls, I could have changed the whole game,” he said. “Not just catching those balls, but doing other things as well. Just doing my job and then when I get the opportunity to make a big play, that’s what we need right now.”

The Vikings could use the help defensively. They have the 11th-ranked defense overall (by yardage) and 13th against the pass, but they are 21st in third-down efficiency and 22nd in net yards per pass play.

Smith is becoming a leader of the defense with his multi-faceted play. He is all over the field in Zimmer’s defense, guarding the back end at times, defending the run with his hard-hitting style at other junctures, and blitzing the quarterback at other times. He grew up wanting to be a hard-hitting enforcer but realizes times have changed in the NFL.

“That’s what I liked watching growing up – Sean Taylor and those guys – but they’re kind of taking that away from the game,” Smith said. “I think getting the interception, it changes the game more, gives you a chance to score points.”

That’s why his missed opportunities on Sunday bothered him so much. The first missed interception might have resulted in a chance for a big return. He got some razzing from teammates, but he said the harshest criticism was “self-inflicted.”

In Zimmer’s defense, Smith is being asked to do it all, depending on the defensive play that is called. Despite his high level of play, he continues to critique his performance and insists he needs to get better at everything. Eventually, he wants to be a Pro Bowl player and he doesn’t appear too far away from that aspiration.

“That’s always been a goal of mine is to be considered at that level. That’s not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the Super Bowl, but to get to the Super Bowl you need to have a lot of guys making plays, a lot of good players, so you want to play at that level, whether you’re voted there or not.

“When you play a team each week, they have to say, ‘We have to account for this guy.’ That’s really what I want to be. When they play us, they need to account for me and account for however many guys – we all need to play at that level.”

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