Sunday slant: Studious Smith surging

In his rookie season, Harrison Smith picked up a trick of the trade from wily veteran Antoine Winfield that is helping Smith become perhaps the Vikings’ best defender.

It’s been two years since wily old Antoine Winfield was playing like a man twice his size with the instincts of a veteran coach, but his influence is still present with perhaps the Minnesota Vikings’ best defensive player.

If Harrison Smith’s instincts from the safety position are reminiscent of Winfield’s uncanny ability to sniff out a screen, there is good reason for the resemblance. Winfield’s ways in his final season rubbed off on Smith, whose low-key demeanor off the field is highly unrepresentative of his insatiable desire to be great on the field.

One of the keys Smith took away from his rookie season was learning how to become a student of the game. In this case, the 2012 rookie from Notre Dame was learning from the old man nearly two decades gone from Ohio State. Fans in stadiums see players going through their pregame warmups, first as individuals and then as a team. What they don’t see is what happens in the 15 to 20 minutes before the game when the players head for the locker room for a brief respite before kickoff.

For some, that’s a time to put on the Beats and find motivational music. For Smith, it’s a time to grab the iPad one last time and put his mind in the game before his body steps back on the field. Smith uses that window of free time to review the week’s worth of film study and diagnose, once again, what he believes will be some of the key plays coming his way early in the game.

“That’s something that I used to see Antoine do a lot. He would watch maybe the first 15 and he would just put himself in the game and make a call and go through it in his mind – what would I do here, what would I do there,” Smith said. “I think that’s helped me already put myself in the game. I don’t need to get that first play under my belt, that first series under my belt. I can just go out and play.”

Each player takes a different approach to their free time with film study. Nine-year veteran defensive end Brian Robison said players don’t really discuss how much extra film study they put in away from the team’s Winter Park practice facility. For him, most of the preparation is done by game day.

The old man of the defense, Chad Greenway, is someone that second-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd looks up to when it comes to knowing how to watch film, not just how much.

“I think going home and watching tape is critical, I think just to kind of square things away in your head and go through some calls,” Greenway said. “It’s good being on your own doing it rather than being in a setting like this and just going through the scenarios.”

For Greenway, the film-watching usually ends by Saturday night for a Sunday afternoon game.

But Smith, with his inner drive to become one of the best safeties in the game, taking several minutes before the game to review the key calls has become part of his pregame routine.

“Just sitting at the locker, you can go through it. It’s not anything new, it’s the old plays we’ve already seen during the week, but it just puts you there,” Smith said.

That preparation has helped Smith become one of the leaders on the field, and the studious safety is helping make adjustments on the fly.

“Harrison does a great job of communication on the back end recognizing different formations, getting us checked into the right thing so he’s done an outstanding job of that thus far this year,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “So from that aspect of it, we feel like he can recall things. … He’s been able to get us in the right calls and the right leverage in our coverages and those kind of things.”

Pregame film study may have been Smith’s routine for the last three years after seeing Winfield extend his career, but there is a good reason for Smith to continue it this year.

The Vikings struggled for most of the first half of this season with giving up big scoring drives to start games. The Vikings have given up nine first-quarter scoring drives, but only one in the last three games and that was a field goal against Washington. But their early-game struggles in September and October led to opponents outscoring the Vikings 54-27 in the first quarter, the biggest scoring disparity by quarter for Minnesota.

Smith said he doesn’t believe there is one thing that can be blamed for those early-game lapses, but that’s one of the reasons he likes to put himself mentally in the game before it starts.

“I think what we can do from this point on is almost feel like we’ve already gone out and played,” Smith said. “We’ve already gone out with what we think the first calls are going to be, whether you want to watch some extra film when you go out or whether you just put yourself in that mindset. I think that helps guys already get into the rhythm of the game. That’s just something that I’ve tried to do.”

So there’s Smith studying minutes before the game in the locker room, a trick of the trade he learned from Winfield, and there’s Smith on the practice field routinely being the last player off after catching dozens of balls from the JUGS machine as he tries to add to his three interceptions on the season.

Really, is it any wonder why Smith might be the best defender on the team?

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