Harrison Smith remained on the CenturyLink Field turf for a few extra seconds last Sunday night, his left hand pawing at the football tucked under the right arm of the Seahawks’ D.K. Metcalf in a final fleeting attempt to preserve a Vikings victory until Metcalf shoved him away and officials signaled touchdown.
Smith rose to his feet with his hands on his hips, sighing as he stared at a replay board in search of some explanation for what had just happened.
Seconds later, NBC’s cameras showed Smith’s green eyes blazing as he turned toward Cameron Dantzler, snapping at the rookie — who’d been responsible for carrying Metcalf’s crossing route across the field — that he needed to cover his man, adding an adjective not printable in this newspaper.
Seven days earlier, Smith had watched the Vikings seal their only victory of the season from the NRG Stadium locker room in Houston, the result of a hit on Texans tight end Jordan Akins on a bang-bang play that got Smith ejected from the game and later earned him a $15,000 fine.
Now, he is left to absorb a blown lead and a one-point loss for the second time in three weeks, as the only defender left on the team who knew both the success the unit had enjoyed under coach Mike Zimmer and the frailty it experienced before that.
“We are a little bit younger, newer, whatever you want to call it, than we have been in the past,” Smith said Friday in another of his wide-ranging weekly media sessions that have quickly become appointment viewing. “And we are making a ton of improvement across the board in all phases. But like you say, winning is it. Nobody is waiting around taking those empty wins. It’s a good thing, but at the end of the day, winning. It’s only winning. So I think that mind-set too is important to ingrain in a young guy — that losing is not OK. Getting better is important and that’s the only way you’re going to get to winning. But at the end of the day, no matter how you win, no matter what you do, gameday wins, that’s why we’re here.”
Smith had been on the field for 69 regular-season and playoff wins, against 54 losses and one tie, during the first eight seasons of a career in Minnesota that could have him on track to reach the Hall of Fame one day. He’s reached the Pro Bowl each of the past five seasons, earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2017 and burnished his reputation as a safety who can do it all and rarely looks out of place in the process.
Less than four months from his 32nd birthday and 15 months from the expiration of a contract he signed in 2016, Smith is the dean of a defense in transition, playing in a secondary that’s routinely starting two rookie cornerbacks and serving as one of the few healthy links to a group that ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed each of the past five seasons.
As much as he’s asked to stoke the Vikings defense with his athletic ability these days, he’s increasingly found the impetus to do so with his mind and his words.
“It’s not like people need that tough love, but you need to know how it is and that’s the reality of this profession,” Smith said. “Especially playing defense these days. It’s hard. Accept it as that and rise to the occasion. Because when you win, it makes it that much better.”
When he started 16 games as a rookie after being selected 29th overall in 2012, Smith took his cues from such veterans as linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Antoine Winfield, who had one of his finest seasons for the Vikings at age 35 before the team released him the following spring.
“He wasn’t going nuts in practice and stuff like that,” Smith said. “But he was getting the work that he needed and then when it came time to play, he was banging guys, he was stealing the ball, hitting linemen. That was pretty easy for me to see early and to be around.”
Smith has chosen his words carefully throughout his career, leading more by modeling good work habits than delivering rousing speeches. But these days, one of his most important roles is to dispense advice.
“Even for me, going into Year 3, Harry knows a lot of things, he’s seen a lot of things in this game, to where if you go up and ask him a question, he has an answer for you right then and there,” cornerback Mike Hughes said. “Or he can put things into simpler forms for you. Players interact with other players a little bit better than coaches can, especially with terminology, because we’re out there on the field together, so just little nitpicky things.
Co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said of Smith: “He’s not an outspoken guy, but around the players, he’s a really good leader. On the sideline, he’s great, he’s encouraging. He wants to win just as much as everybody and he’s done a lot of winning in his career. He’s really helped be kind of the backbone of the defense.”
‘We don’t have to wait’
It’s all led to incremental improvement through a five-week stretch that has included losses to three of the league’s four remaining unbeaten teams. The Vikings have the league’s No. 1 third-down defense, having allowed opponents to convert only nine of 43 attempts after the Packers went 6-for-11 in Week 1.
They’ve pressured quarterbacks more consistently, with Smith’s six pressures through five games equaling his total from all of last season, according to Pro Football Focus. As a whole, the Vikings rank as one of the league’s best 1-4 teams of the past 30 years, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average metric.
“The thing is, there’s a ton of positives,” Smith said. “That, to me, is what you focus on. Guys play with confidence. … You want to be out there on the field because you’re going to make a difference. And I think that attitude and that mind-set, although it wasn’t enough against Seattle, a lot of the good things that we did, we need to carry those over and ultimately finish.”
Smith speaks these days with a wariness toward what the NFL has done to increase scoring through rules changes and make a defender’s job more difficult in the process. He is equally wary of a mind-set that accepts moral victories as currency.
When coach Mike Zimmer scoffed at preseason conjecture the Vikings would encounter rough patches in their defensive transition, boasting to NFL Network that he’s “never had a bad defense — ever,” Smith picked up on the theme, answering an August question about 2020 expectations by responding wryly, “I didn’t know we were supposed to be bad.”
As the defense’s longest-tenured player and a captain for the first time in 2020, Smith is there both to encourage and to admonish. He praises the progress he sees, but not as a substitute for the production he believes can happen right now.
“[What] you want to harp on is that we can do that right now. We don’t have to wait,” he said. “We don’t have to say, ‘OK, we’ll get a couple more reps or a couple more games.’ We can do that today and we can do it tomorrow, and we can keep doing that. That mind-set, I think is the most important thing.”