Smith's Next Big Chance

Linebacker Raonall Smith hasn't been a reliable linebacker for the Vikings because of injuries, but now it's an injury to Keith Newman that is expected to get Smith back in the starting lineup Sunday. See what LB E.J. Henderson had to say about the position.

In a matter of six months, Keith Newman went from a player whose Winter Park
locker stall should have been cleaned out to a player the Vikings will sorely miss. During that same time Raonall Smith has gone from a player on the roster bubble to a player whose contributions will be counted on Sunday against Pittsburgh.

After last season, the Vikings appeared in no hurry to sign Newman, a free agent. Newman, who came to the Vikings last year after spending 2003 in Atlanta and the previous three seasons with defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell in Buffalo, recorded 73 tackles and 3-1/2 sacks, but the Viking weren't excited to pay what he was looking for.

Eventually he was signed as an after-the-fact player since the Vikings thought they already had a starting strongside linebacker in Napoleon Harris, who was acquired from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade. But Newman took over Harris's starting role in the second month of the season and has excelled ever since.

Newman has made 42 tackles and three sacks this season and has been one of the top playmakers for the Vikings' revived defense. Newman will miss Sunday's game and at least next week's as well because of a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

That leaves the Vikings with Raonall Smith, Harris and Rod Davis as options to fill Newman's role. Smith appears to be the front-runner and is expected to start for Newman on Sunday against the Steelers.

"Any time you lose a player like Keith Newman it's going to hurt your defense," weakside linebacker E.J. Henderson said. "But I think Smitty can do more than an adequate job of stepping in and making some plays for us."

Smith filled in for Newman when he left the game against the Rams, and did an adequate job as his replacement.

"I thought Raonall did very well in the game because not only did he do well in the game, but his special-team grade was 1.95 out of 2.0, so his special-team play didn't slack any," head coach Mike Tice said. "I was very proud of him. I think he showed a lot more maturity than he showed in the past."

Maturity might be translated into healthy.

Smith was drafted by the Vikings in the second round in 2002. He was placed on injured reserve the first month of the 2002 season with a bad shoulder. In 2003, he played just seven games because of a nagging hamstring injury. Last season, he again played just seven games because he suffered a season-ending concussion Oct. 31 against the New York Giants.

Injuries haven't been a concern for Smith during his fourth season with the Vikings. That directly correlates to his productivity.

"Really, this is the first full season he's been healthy," Henderson said. "That's one of the bigger things. He's finally able to come out a whole season and play, as far as health-wise, and he's done a good job. He's leading us in special-teams tackles and he came in for us when we were running the 3-4 defense.

"He'll make some plays for us on Sunday."

Smith has made 25 tackles this season. Harris, in his first year with the Vikings since coming from Oakland, has made 24.

"Nap expected a bigger role, but he's done a good job of coming in and playing good football for us," Henderson said. "He's a backer in some of the nickel packages and he's done a good job of doing whatever they ask him to do. He comes to work with a smile on his face and he's made the best of the situation."

Cottrell thinks Smith will be up to the challenge of being in the starting lineup Sunday.

"He's starting to learn the position, but he's not been getting a lot of reps with Keith as starter," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "One thing he does is his playmaking ability. He can show up, get an interception, rush, knock down a pass."

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