Smith, like defense, striving for consistency

Harrison Smith might end up in the Pro Bowl yet, but he isn’t satisfied with his play or the performance of an improved defense. Like Mike Zimmer, Smith is holding himself and the defense to a high standard.

As more teams begin their offseason in each week of the playoffs, they take a chance to reflect back on their respective seasons – both good and bad. For the Vikings, that process began following their Week 17 win over Chicago.

The 2014 season is in the books and, while there weren’t any players who felt satisfied with their 7-9 finish, there are signs of improvement with the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater and a much improved defense.

A year earlier, the Vikings locker room at the end of the season had the sense of a funeral. Minutes earlier, players had learned that Leslie Frazier had been fired and the only quarterback under contract was Christian Ponder. Harrison Smith was coming off an injury-shortened season and wasn’t living up to his own expectations.

A year later, Smith could get named to the Pro Bowl if Seattle and its Pro Bowl safeties are indisposed the week before the Super Bowl. He has been a shining light in the new Mike Zimmer-based defense and sees the improvement not only in his own game, but in that of his defensive teammates. He still considers the defense to be a work in progress.

“I think consistency is one of the things we’re looking for more of next season,” Smith said. “That’s our mindset. There’s still a lot of work to be put in. It’s not like we can just roll it out next year. We have to come in hungry and ready to take it to the next level.”

The Vikings made significant improvement on defense that moved them from the bottom of the rankings to the middle of the pack. In 2013, the Vikings defense was awful. It was 31st in yards allowed, including 31st against the pass. They also allowed more points than any team in the NFL, a time-honored recipe for disaster.

This season, the Vikings improved to 14th in overall defense, their pass defense improved to seventh in the league and the points allowed went from 30 a game down to 21 on average. That moved them from 32nd to 11th place in that category. Considering that points allowed may be the most important stat any defense faces, that’s a significant jump – and reason for there to be optimism that the Vikings are improving in the areas most critical to winning.

“I think the expectations are always the same,” Smith said. “There’s only win reason to play and that’s to win right now. You’re not playing to build for next season or say that you’re a young team. You’re playing to win and that’s all we’re trying to do.”

Despite getting rave reviews for his 2014 season, Smith wasn’t as quick to pat himself on the back. He was in on a team-high 1,097 snaps, finished second on the team with 102 tackles and finished tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions. By any measure, he was as impressive a safety is there is outside of King County, but he isn’t satisfied with where his 2014 season went.

“From a personal standpoint, it’s been kind of similar to what I said about the team,” Smith said. “There were some good things, but I was a little inconsistent. There’s always plays that you can look back on and say, ‘I could have made that play’ and it could have changed things. Those are things you just try to get better at.”

The one thing there is no question about is how the defensive players have responded to the aggressive scheme employed by Zimmer. It is a scheme of production and accountability. If the defenders do their job, it succeeds. If there is a lapse, it doesn’t. It’s a risk-reward defense that the players have gone all-in with and the fruits of their labor started to pay off.

“He’s got us heading in the right direction,” Smith said. “He set a completely different tone around here – being professionals, playing aggressive football, playing tough, disciplined football, everybody doing their job. We’re not there yet, but he’s got us going there.”

The next step the Vikings defense is preparing to make is dealing with the second year of the Zimmer system. For those who aren’t 2015 rookies or free agents, it will be the second year in the Zimmer system and everybody who went through Year One will hit the ground running.

“I’m pretty excited about that aspect of it,” Smith said. “Not that it was overly complicated being familiar with things, (but) the second time around should make things run smoother as long as we’re putting in the work. We don’t have to learn new verbiage and stuff like that and knowing what the coaches like.”

Last year, it seemed as though there was a ghostly pall hanging over the Vikings locker room at season’s end. This year, there wasn’t a sense of elation, but the outlook was markedly more optimistic. The sense in the room was tangible and something to build on.

“I definitely get that vibe,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of confidence moving forward. Not that we’re happy where we’re at, but I think there’s a positive mindset of where we can go.”

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