Film study: The versatility of Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith’s ability to do a lot of things well is important for Mike Zimmer’s defense. We look at the many talents Smith brings to the Vikings defense, from creating turnovers in different ways to stuffing the run to being a leader on defense.

Of all the recent first-round draft picks that the Minnesota Vikings have had, it is hard to argue that any have played better than safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings traded a second-round and fourth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens in order to move up to No. 29 overall and draft the safety.

In return, Smith has become a leader for their defense and one of the more versatile players on the team. He does well in pass coverage, stopping the run, and he can even rush the passer when asked to do so.

In the 40 games that Smith has played in his career, he has recorded 255 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 10 interceptions – three of which have been returned for touchdowns – and 23 passes defended. But what really makes the numbers impressive is how much of an impact the 2014 season had on his stats.

Mike Zimmer took over as head coach during the 2014 season and brought a new defensive scheme with him. Smith definitely bought into whatever it was Zimmer was teaching him and had a career season during his third year in the NFL.

In 2014 alone, Smith recorded 93 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, five interceptions – one of which was returned for a touchdown – and nine passes defensed. Zimmer loves to work with both defensive backs and versatile players, and he clearly enjoys working with Smith.

The Vikings defense is slowly getting younger and younger, which means that Smith is going to need to emerge as a leader on it. Out of the 11 players expected to earn a starting role on the 2015 defense, seven of them are younger than Smith. And then there are others, such as Everson Griffen, who are older but have less experience as a starter.

Vikings Update takes a look at what Smith does well on the football field that has allowed him to succeed in the NFL, and some things he may still need to work on.

Play No. 1
This first play takes us back to the Vikings Week 1 matchup against the St. Louis Rams. The Rams were moving the ball down the field and threatening to score. Smith (22) was able to jump underneath a crossing route and intercept the ball.

He had the presence of mind to take off running down the field toward the end zone. He had help from defensive end Everson Griffen on the return, but Smith showed patience by slowing down a little bit to make sure Griffen secured the block in front of him. Then once he saw Griffen had done just that, Smith sped up so the players behind him didn’t have a chance to bring him down. The result was an 81-yard return for a touchdown.

Having a playmaker such as Smith is important for any team because he has the ability to make a big play at any time. That was his third interception returned for a touchdown that he has had in his career, and those plays aren’t likely to end anytime soon.

Play No. 2
Not only does Smith have to ability to intercept the ball, but he has the ability to cause fumbles, too. In this play, the Buffalo Bills receiver catches the ball and Smith wraps him up right away. While in the process of wrapping up, though, he is able to get his hand on the ball and knock it free.

He then falls on top of the receiver, who is still wrapped up so he cannot recover it himself. This allows Smith’s teammates to recover the fumble and give the Vikings the ball. It was a heads-up play by Smith that really helped the Vikings out in what turned out to be a close football game.

This play helps show Smith’s versatility as a player. Yes, it is nice that he has the ability to intercept the football, but it is also nice that he is not afraid to go in and tackle somebody. He also the presence of mind to knock the football out while he is tackling. Winning the turnover battle is key for the winning team and Smith has the ability to help his team do just that.

Play No. 3
As mentioned earlier, Smith also has the ability to rush the passer and come up with a sack. On this play, Smith lined up on the line right to the outside Griffen. Once the ball is snapped, he is able to get around the corner and lay a big hit on the quarterback.

At first glance, this may seem like a simple run-and-tackle type of play, but at a closer look there are a few other details that make the play a little more complicated. To start, you can see that Smith is a little slow off the ball as if to give Griffen time to engage the offensive tackle so Smith then has a clear shot at the quarterback.

Then once he gets around the end you can see Smith speed up into another gear in order to reach the quarterback. It was important that Smith reaches the quarterback as quickly as possible because the middle of the field was left wide open due to the multiple players rushing the passer. If he were late the quarterback, the Rams would have the opportunity to take advantage of that.

This play helps to further show how versatile a player Smith is, and how he can be used all over the field. It also shows that he has a good understanding of the game in the way that he rushes the passer.

Play No. 4
This next play shows Smith’s ability to come in for run support and make a good tackle. The Dolphins offensive line does a really nice job of taking out the Vikings defensive line and linebackers. They are also able to open a big hole for their running back.

But Smith is able to step up into the hole and hold the play to just a gain of 2 yards. This is a good open-field tackle made by the safety because if he misses there is a lot of open field to work with.

Safeties are often thought of as the last line of defense for a defense because they are usually playing farther back than anyone else on the field. Therefore, it is important to make sure they are solid tacklers and do not miss in the open field. That is what Smith does here, as he stops what could have been a big play.

Play No. 5
Smith does a lot of things right on the football field, but he is still a young guy and does make mistakes from time to time, even if those mistakes are few and far between. This next play may not be his fault necessarily, but he could have played the mistake that was made much better.

From the start of this play, you could see that there was miscommunication among the Vikings defense and a receiver was left uncovered and wide open. Smith ran up to cover the player but appeared to still be yelling at the other players while he did so.

Once the ball was snapped, Smith appeared to drop back into zone coverage in the middle of the field, along with the Vikings’ other safety, and let the receiver run with a lot of open space. Considering only two players went deep, one of which was double covered, Smith probably should have covered the receiver tighter than he did.

As Smith continues to take on a leadership role with the Vikings, he will need to make sure everyone is lined up properly and plays such as this one are a limited breed.

This offseason, the Vikings chose to pick up Smith’s fifth-year option for 2016 at $5.278 million. This shows that the team has faith in Smith moving forward and you can be sure that signing Smith to a long-term deal is a high priority for the Vikings. He represents the type of player that Zimmer wants to have on his defense, and as he continues to learn and develop in that defense, he should only continue to get better.

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