Meet the secret to defensive success
It couldn't happen to a better guy, as they say. This off-season Harrison Smith landed a five-year, $51.25 million contract that reflects his importance to Minnesota, and now the national attention will only build for him. No one on the Vikings minds the recognition the free safety is finally getting, except maybe Smith himself.
By Pro Football Focus's stats, Smith was the only safety to grade out positively in coverage, run support and pass rush in 2014 and '15. But you don't need to be a sophisticated analyst to appreciate the big hits that send Minnesota fans scrambling for their GIF-makers on a regular basis. Those collisions earned Smith the nickname Gangster White Boy from Adrian Peterson.
Outside the Twin Cities, though, Smith's name hardly registers. Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater calls Smith "one of the most underrated players in this league." Last November, Smith was lined up to do a postgame radio interview for a national program when the show's producer responded, "Who? No, no. We need someone bigger than that." Smith did make his first Pro Bowl last winter, but he was named only as an alternate.
"I kind of like it," Smith says of being slighted. "I like holding on to those things." This is why he doesn't want to be a Honey Badger or join a Legion of Boom. The 6'2", 214-pound former Notre Dame captain got the only validation he needed in June, when the Vikings made him the league's top-paid safety. For Smith, who still happily drives his 2002 Tahoe, the satisfaction was less about what he can buy than in seeing how much general manager Rick Spielman values him.
If Smith is getting more attention these days, attribute some of it to the contract and the rest to the Vikings becoming a trendy pick to make the Super Bowl—and for good reason. On offense they bolstered their line by signing right tackle Andre Smith from Cincinnati and left guard Alex Boone from San Francisco. Their first-round draft pick out of Mississippi, Laquon Treadwell, gives Teddy Bridgewater a reliable possession receiver and a complement to speedy Stefon Diggs, who had 52 catches last year as a fifth-round rookie.
But this team still makes its mark on defense, where Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph anchor a deep line, Anthony Barr has developed into an elite linebacker, and Harrison Smith makes coach Mike Zimmer's scheme hum. The versatile safety allows Zimmer to mix up looks without swapping personnel because he excels along the line of scrimmage as well as in man and zone coverages. Smith also helps Minnesota disguise looks as well as anyone, not because he has the speed to make up ground, but because he almost never takes a false step. He has a great sense of where a play will end up, and when he gets there, Smith finishes, either by knocking back a ballcarrier or high-pointing a pass before a receiver can get to it.
It's those kinds of plays that inspired Spielman to open up the bank for Smith, but "he don't act no different now than when we first met," says linebacker Audie Cole. "He's just a good dude." Cole knows this well. The two were roommates, and a couple of seasons ago Smith connected Cole with his cousin Caroline. Now Cole and Caroline are engaged. Smith will play a role in the wedding, Cole says, but the planning is still in the early stages and the groom-to-be does not want to tip his hand just yet. He's starting to understand Zimmer's conundrum. How do you give Smith one role when he can do it all?
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
At 31, Adrian Peterson still has an unmatched ability to jump-cut laterally. But for all his greatness, Peterson is a remarkably limited runner stylistically. He doesn't like rushing behind a lead blocker or out of the shotgun; those sets require that a ballcarrier wait for the action to unfold. He also doesn't like to run outside by design; that, too, requires the patience to let blocks develop. Peterson's aversions mean that Minnesota must eliminate several chapters from its playbook. Goodbye sweeps and stretch zone handoffs; hello, inside zone, "power" and "counter"—plays where blockers double-team in the trenches. From there, Peterson can take a handoff and immediately hit a hole. It's predictable, but it doesn't require highly athletic blockers, leaving the Vikings more flexibility to spend on D. All the while, their ground game remains dominant because Peterson is so obscenely effective.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 10--6
2015 Record: 11--5
SEPT. 11 atTEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 vs.GB
SEPT. 25 atCAR
OCT. 3 vs.NYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.HOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atPHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 31 atCHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 atWAS
NOV. 20 vs.ARI [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 24 atDET
DEC. 1 vs.DAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atJAX
DEC. 18 vs.IND [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 atGB
JAN. 1 vs.CHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER