Smith’s versatility excels in Vikings defense

Harrison Smith is having the best season of his young career, and his versatility is proving a perfect fit for Mike Zimmer’s defense … with more to come, says the head coach.

Throughout the course of the 2014 season, the Vikings have shown flashes of dominance on defense. It took a while for the players to fully grasp the concepts of Mike Zimmer’s defense, but few players have attacked the opportunities that the defense has provided as much as Harrison Smith.

Smith has embraced Zimmer’s defense since Day 1 because it is a scheme that is dependent on active safeties that are asked to do a variety of different things. He has loved the opportunity to get the most out of his skill set, and Zimmer’s defense and Smith’s style are a glove fit.

“There are just more opportunities down by the line of scrimmage – blitzing, covering man to man, just confusing people,” Smith said. “The safeties in Coach Zimmer’s defense get to do a lot of things. That is just something I like doing. When your number is called for that kind of stuff, you get excited, knowing that the coaches have the confidence in you that you’ll make plays in those situations.”

Zimmer has asked a lot of Smith and has been rewarded for the confidence that he has shown in him. Smith consistently grades out high and is playing at a Pro Bowl level. The scary part for Vikings’ opponents is that Zimmer believes he merely is scratching the surface of what he can accomplish.

“I think he’s a smart guy and he has some versatility,” Zimmer said. “There’s still a lot of things that I want to do with him that I haven’t been able to get done yet that we probably will. It’s still about trying to emphasize his strengths and accentuate those things. But we try to figure out a lot of different things to do with him.”

Smith is tied for fifth in the NFL with four interceptions and is the only player in the NFL this season and the fourth defensive back in Vikings history to have at least three interceptions and three sacks, further testament to his versatility.

Smith enjoys the freedom and playmaking potential his role in the defense has. In the Leslie Frazier Tampa-2 defense, too often safeties were asked to lay back and patrol the deep end of the field. In Zimmer’s system, Smith gets to play everywhere from the deep middle of the field to behind the line of scrimmage and he’s confident in his ability to be a playmaker.

“I’m a guy who has always prided myself on being able to do everything pretty well,” Smith said. “There are some guys who are good at one or two things. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can do everything at a pretty high level. I’m not the biggest guy out there or the fastest guy, but I’m always going to execute my job when I’m out there. I think having versatility allows me to get in on sacks, interceptions, tackles, forced fumbles – stuff like that.”

When outside media discuss the Vikings defense, Smith and Everson Griffen are typically the two players whose names come up first. Griffen has blossomed in his role as a pass-rushing right defensive end that has been one of the top sack guys in the league. Smith is honored to hear the praise that is being almost universally directed his way, because it is affirmation that he is doing what he has always set out to do and it is starting to get noticed.

“That’s what you want to hear about yourself,” Smith said. “I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can make a difference on the field. If people talk about me in that way, it’s great. But I’m out to prove more to myself than anyone else. I think that’s why I strive to be perfect out on the field. If I miss a tackle, (Zimmer) is going to be mad at me, but I’m going to be madder at myself than anyone is. That’s just how I’ve always played and I think you need that if you want to be one of the best at your position.”

His breakout season comes on the heels of a 2013 season that was shortened by a turf toe injury that knocked him out of action for half the season. This time around, he’s healthy and making plays like few other safeties in the league.

As a result of his consistently strong play, Smith is getting a lot of attention as a potential Pro Bowler. It’s something he has set for himself as a goal, but it isn’t the top priority when it comes to proving himself on the field.

“I think that’s everybody’s goal in the league,” Smith said. “It shows respect from around the league that you’re doing a good job. But that’s stuff kind of secondary to me. I want the guys that I go up against every game to know that I was on the field. If the Pro Bowl comes with that, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, that OK, as long as I can feel good about the job I’m doing.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Smith’s play this year is that he isn’t satisfied with all that he’s accomplished. It’s part of his nature. He remembers the bad plays longer than the good and is never completely happy with his performance – which pushes him to be better from year to year and game to game. After he missed a potential interception early in the season, he has regularly been the last player to leave the practice field after catching countless passes while putting his body in different positions to react to the ball quickly.

It’s that work ethic that he hopes will get him the respect of opposing players and coaches as he continues to improve his game and become a regular in the Pro Bowl discussion moving forward.

“There are a lot of things I can still improve upon,” Smith said. “I’ve left some plays out there – I still kick myself for missing a sack on Aaron Rodgers earlier this year – but this is a defense that plays to the strengths of the guys on the field, especially at safety. I think there’s going to be a lot of good things happening for us in the future and I’m just happy I’m part of it. I think the best is still to come for us.”

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