If the Minnesota Vikings are going to get their 2016 season back on track, it’s likely going to depend heavily on what got them to 5-0 in the first place – a stifling defense that can shut an opponent down and give the offense enough opportunities to put up points to win.
Last week’s loss to Washington was a death by 1,000 paper cuts for the Vikings defense, which kept the Redskins out of the end zone in the second half but allowed four field goals that proved to be the difference.
For guys like safety Harrison Smith, that just isn’t acceptable, especially with a potent offense coming to town from Arizona Sunday.
“When we’re at our best, we’re working as group and making plays,” Smith said. “That can be a sack that kills a drive. It can be an open-field tackle that gives us a spark. It can be forcing a fumble or getting an interception. We’ve been close a lot of times of making those plays, but we need to be consistent and take advantage of those chances when they come.”
The Cardinals are averaging almost two turnovers a game and those are the types of teams that Minnesota’s defense has fed off.
Teams willing to take chances can create turnovers, but the Cardinals have a lethal big-play capability because they run the ball well and have deep speed – a lot of deep speed.
“They’ve got a ton of speed across the board,” Smith said. “It’s not just one guy can go deep. They’ve got speed everywhere. I think that opens up some of the deep shots for them.”
For Smith, this will be the first time in a long time since he’s played the Cardinals. His only meeting was during his rookie season and he made the most of the experience, picking off John Skelton and returning the interception 31 yards for a touchdown.
It was an experience he has repeated three more times in his career, but the first time remains the most special.
Smith picked off the pass and crossed the length of the field with the entire Cardinals offense in pursuit. He went from defense to offense in an instant, just as much out of a sudden sense of fear than anything else.
“I was running as fast as I could because all I could see were their players chasing me,” Smith said. “All I could think was get upfield and get away from them. It worked. They didn’t catch me.”
In last year’s meeting, the Vikings were banged up in the secondary, especially at safety. Smith missed the game and was replaced by ageless veteran Terence Newman.
Smith already had a strong respect for Newman, but what he saw that Thursday night last year was about as impressive a performance as he had seen in some time.
“I was impressed, but I wasn’t surprised,” Smith said. “I think you could put him pretty much anywhere. He’s smart enough. He’s physical enough. He plays as hard anybody. He can do some pretty incredible stuff.”
This time around, Smith has been relatively healthy – thanks to a regular date with the cold tub – but the Vikings secondary has been without some of its key pieces. Captain Munnerlyn has been sidelined with knee and ankle injuries. Xavier Rhodes has missed time with concussion symptoms. Andrew Sendejo has been slowed with an ankle injury.
But, barring a setback as the Vikings face a critical game to end their four-game slide, it appears as though the secondary will have all hands on deck – a complete reversal of last year’s meeting when the Vikings were as shorthanded in the secondary as they’ve been in the Mike Zimmer era.
“It’s good to have everyone back at practice and running around,” Smith said. “At this point of the year, you’re going to deal with (some injuries). It’s part of the game. You just have to get back to as healthy as possible and get back out there.”
If the Vikings are going to win Sunday, it may well be the play of the secondary that dictates that outcome.