When a team is struggling like the Minnesota Vikings have over the last three games, you often look to your leaders to step up and lead by example. The Vikings look to end their three-game tailspin that has seen them go from being the NFL’s last unbeaten team at 5-0 to a team that would currently be the fourth seed in the NFC with the Lions and Packers breathing down their necks.
Few players will be needed more than safety Harrison Smith. He’s still stinging from the win that slipped through the Vikings’ fingers at the end of the Sunday’s loss to Detroit – allowing the Lions to get into long field goal range with 23 seconds and no timeouts, then driving the length of the field in overtime for the game-winning touchdown. He wants revenge and the Redskins are the next team in line.
“It was just execution,” Smith said. “What happened at the end of that game wasn’t what we do as a defense. There were a couple of plays I could have made that might have changed things for us. We don’t usually have those kind of breakdowns that allow big plays. They come every now and again, but we have the defense in place to shut people down and we need to get back to that.”
Having Washington next on the schedule isn’t something that has the Vikings brimming with overconfidence. The Redskins have the third-ranked pass offense in the NFL and have more weapons than most teams in the pass offense.
It would be one thing to plan to put Xavier Rhodes on their best receiver and try to shut off his water. It’s another when you have a handful of legitimate weapons that can tilt the field in Washington’s favor.
“They’ve just got receivers who can make plays,” Smith said. “You go down that list and they have a lot of guys who can make big plays for them – Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, (Jamison) Crowder, Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis and a quarterback that can make plays. They have plenty of firepower and we’re going to have to try to keep all of them from making big plays on us.”
Atop the list of priorities is to get after quarterback Kirk Cousins. He is in top end of quarterbacks in terms of pass attempts, completions, completion percentage and yards, but is in the bottom half in terms of interceptions and passer rating.
Those numbers are in direct conflict. What it means is that, when given time, Cousins can pick apart defenses. When pressured, he makes critical mistakes. It is imperative that the Vikings bring the heat because, when defenses do, Cousins will make critical mistakes. When they don’t, he makes them pay.
“He has pretty good pocket presence,” Smith said. “When you watch him on film, he doesn’t look like he wants to run unless his protection breaks down. He can run, but he prefers to stay in the pocket. So we need to get pressure up front, whether that’s from the front four or with blitzes, and those of us on the back end will have to hold tight coverage because if you give him time, he will deliver the ball in a tight window.”
The onus will be on players like Smith to make the difference in whether Cousins has the opportunity to do damage to the Vikings defense or whether Minnesota dictates the pace with pressure and can get him off his spot.
Smith knows he is on the hot seat to help end the Vikings’ losing streak and much is expected from him, given the attention he is getting from the national media for the level of his play.
In a midseason report card conducted by The Sporting News, 10 NFL analysts voted their midseason All-Pro team and Smith was the only player to be unanimously voted to the team – no small achievement given the number of dominant players that are scattered around the 32 NFL teams.
But for Smith, the prize isn’t individual honors. His focus is on making the Vikings better, not getting singled out for personal accolades.
“It’s nice that they think I’m doing a good job, but that doesn’t matter to me,” Smith said. “All that really matters is that we’ve lost three games in a row and we have to turn this thing around. That’s our focus – winning as a team and nothing to do with individual stuff.”