Bonecrusher, Dirty Harry, Harry “The Hitman”, Heartbreak Kid, or Adrian Peterson’s personal favorite “Gangster White Boy”. No matter your preferred nickname for Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith, for the last two seasons the league has been cornered into calling him what he really is – the NFL’s best safety.

Smith signed a five-year extension that only adds fuel to that fire when ranking the league’s premier safeties. While big names like Earl Thomas, Eric Berry, and Devin McCourty are quick to come to mind, surface fans are now forced to recognize and respect Smith for what Vikings fans have known him to be since his rookie year – a safety who has always had a positive impact in the three most important phases on the defensive side of the ball.

 

Defending the Pass

Head coach Mike Zimmer uses Smith in virtually the exact same role he once used Reggie Nelson back in Cincinnati.  Zimmer used Nelson in a large majority of half-field coverages where Smith has been outstanding allowing the second-best passer rating of all safeties with a 43.3, and has never allowed more than a 68.0 passer rating when being targeted in any season so far in his career.

While Smith still would have likely been a top-60 pick had the team not traded up for him, his lack of a blazing 40-time (4.57) and inability to wow scouts with any one outstanding trait was why teams shied away from him as a “can’t miss” first-round talent.

But, as time goes on and the league continues to evolve into a pass-happy camp, it is vital for your safeties to own a combination of football instincts and awareness, and would be wise for a team to value those traits equally if not more than a player’s pure athletic ability – as safeties are now being forced to act as the QB of the defense, much like the middle linebacker position once was.

Zimmer will continue to utilize Smith as one of the best defensive chess pieces in the entire league

In week 13 of the 2012 season Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy planned to take advantage of Smith’s still in progress rookie development. The Packers called a toss-left half back lateral in which after receiving the pitch Randall Cobb then passed the ball back to Rodgers who was looking for at the minimum one-on-one coverage.

The play was designed to suck Smith back into the box taking him out of the play altogether, however, because of his outstanding football smarts Smith was able to able to quickly dissect and recognize the play, get off of his coverage, and get back underneath the pass to make the interception 50-yards down field.

 

This was one of Smith’s 12 interceptions he has in his career thus far to go along with 12 passes defended.  In all, Smith has been thrown at 120 times, in which just 68 balls have been completed.

 

Against the Run

Viking’s fans have watched more than their fair share of sloppy tackling take place specifically over the last two decades in their secondary under regimes like Denny Green, Mike Tice, Brad Childress, and Leslie Frazier. Raise your hand if you still remember watching Orlando Thomas failing to wrap up a tackle, Jimmy Hitchcock taking a poor angle to the ball, or Chris Dishman whiffing on the ball carrier altogether.

Safe to say the addition of Smith into the Vikings run game was made known early on where he was rock solid on the ground from day-one.  You could likely count on one hand how many times you’ve seen Smith fail to wrap up and bring down a ball-carrier that’s been in his grasp during his four-seasons of play. He’s also one of the surest tacklers in the league out in the vulnerable open space, where many offensive skill-players are known to put defensive backs on SportsCenter for all the wrong reasons.

Eric Weddle is the only safety I’ve seen as of late that is able to cover as much ground during the pre snap look than Smith

Smith has graded positively against the run in each of the last three seasons, and has always been among the team leaders in tackles since being drafted.  It’s true, the tackle statistic isn’t always a great indicator of a safeties success at stopping the run as it’s tough to calculate how many tackles came at the line of scrimmage versus into the second and third levels of the defense. However, Smith shoots into the box with authority and gets to the ball carrier quickly making technically sound stops at or near the line of scrimmage consistently.

Last season against the San Diego Chargers, Smith was in-the-box helping defend against the run. With Danny Woodhead set in motion from left-to-right towards his side of the field, Smith sealed his side while staying patient, letting the play develop into his lane. Even with two-sets of Charger hands on him and blocking, Harrison timed the run perfectly, split in between his two-defenders, and dragged Woodhead down by the arm with just one hand thanks to his sheer strength.

 

 

Blitz, Blitz, Blitz

Like Nelson with the Bengals, Zimmer loves to use Smith as an edge blitzer when the team shows a double A-gap look, which is a staple in the Vikings defensive repertoire.

While Zimmer doesn’t like to pull Smith away from his centerfield duties in coverage often, when he does Smith makes it easy on him rewarding the defense with an outstanding efficiency in getting after the quarterback, and effecting the play when asked to disrupt the passer.

Under Zimmer’s defense it isn’t about statistics or numbers, as countless times throughout the games and season is one player rewarded the stat and praise when in actuality there were multiple players that in all reality allowed the end result to come to fruition.

Smith is one of the few who still won’t hesitate to throw his body around in a league filled with flags

Saying that, Smith did post two sacks in 2015 along with five quarterback hits and five quarterback pressures. Smith’s pass rushing stats collectively are even more impressive however, as he has 25 combined pressures on just 80 pass-rush attempts. That’s good for number one at the safety position in pass-rush productivity in 2015 according to PFF, and third in the entire league in 2014 as well.

Like others in Zimmer’s defense, Smith won’t always produce the biggest stats on game days, as staying true to your specific gap assignment and doing your job is always the focal point, in turn forcing 11 different players to play as one cohesive unit. However, when the time comes and plays are opened up to be made, Smith doesn’t miss his opportunities often.

These are two prime examples of the defense in their double a-gap look with two defenders over the center, and Smith lined up outside on the edge. Both of these plays allowed Smith to storm into the backfield and give the quarterback no chance to make even a quick throw, instead forcing them to take the sack because of his speed and quickness.

 

 

Harry The Hitman

When the Vikings hired Zimmer the first thing many fans were quick to hear and read up on was the blue collar mentality that the new head coach has always believed in and would implement.

Inheriting a defense with Smith already on it quickly seemed like a match made in heaven, as Smith’s no nonsense demeanor is one of the silent but deadly types.  By no means is Smith emotionless or quiet, but he also will never be known for being the loudmouth trash talking type. Just the way Zimmer likes it, letting his intensity, heart, and passion for the game speak for itself through his actions on the field.

Smith brings a toughness and smash mouth mentality inside the hashes, putting a chip on his own shoulder every game, and every play..  Along with his playmaking ability when the ball is in the air and his rock solid tackling, Smith has earned numerous nicknames including Harry “The Hit Man” thanks to his bone rattling thumps.

In a day and age where defenders are being taught to play it safe due to rule changes that favor the safety of offensive players, Smith is one of the few who still won’t hesitate to throw his body around in a league filled with flags, and make his presence felt when the opportunity presents itself.

It’s this hard nosed nature and rough’em up style of play that Zimmer loves and is infectious to his teammates, while sending a message to the opposing sideline that lasts long after the whistle is blown.

 

 

Master of Disguise

If I told you the play was headed in Smith’s direction before the snap it wouldn’t take you many guesses to narrow down the possible outcomes, thanks to his versatility, play making ability, and aggressive mentality.

Nobody in the entire NFL does the things Harrison Smith is able to do in one complete package. He’s evolved into the ultimate swiss army knife for coach Zimmer and his defense, thanks to his super-star ability at any spot or depth on the field.

However, the one caveat of Smith’s game that I haven’t mentioned yet and the one single attribute that most often gets overlooked from the national media, is arguably his most important trait – his pre snap disguises.

Eric Weddle is the only safety I’ve seen as of late that is able to cover as much ground during the pre snap look than Smith, which is the catalyst to both players success.

Showing the quarterback and offense one position, area, and depth one second – then being able to quickly shift into a completely different look in a blink is what makes Smith so dangerous, putting himself in the right position to make so many different plays.

While he isn’t slow by any means, Smith instead of straight-line speed uses his impeccable football instincts and understanding to maximize his movements and make each step he takes efficient as possible.

While this unique trait isn’t always the easiest to show on film, here in just Smith’s fourth game ever as a pro against Detroit, he shows Matt Stafford one look (half-field zone coverage to the left), and then is able to explode towards the play thanks to reading the quarterback’s eyes and letting his instincts take over.  

Even though this play does not concretely show his pre snap movements, it does give you a bird’s eye view at Smith’s impeccable instincts, and just how much ground he can cover in such a short amount of time – putting it all together with a monster hit on Calvin Johnson to rattle the ball loose and save a touchdown.

 

 

If I were to make you choose a Vikings defender to have 11 of, forced to play every defensive-position on every down, which player would put you in the best position to succeed?

Your hand would quickly be forced into choosing the player with the most versatility, one who could at least compete and give you a chance at every level of the defense. Linval Joseph is a force in the middle, but it’s tough to imagine him playing press coverage on the outside. The obvious choice is Smith.

Per Randall Li, Harrison Smith is only NFL player since 2012 with 300+ tackles, 5+ sacks, 10+ INTs (12) & 4+ INT-TDs. Of course, stats can deceive us at times, but when you combine those gaudy numbers with just a sample of film clips shown above, one can no longer ignore the impact Smith has had on the Vikings defense, and more so the entire league.

Known as a “defensive back guru”, Zimmer will continue to utilize Smith as one of the best defensive chess pieces in the entire league – all while progressing and developing his skill-set.  Zimmer will look to grow him into an even better version of what he once had during his Cowboy coaching days in All-Pro safety Darren Woodson, a player who had a big impact on the Cowboys’ success during their Super Bowl runs.

At just 27-years young, it’s scary to imagine what the future holds for such an already polished player, who plays what is now one of the most vital (and most demanding) positions on defense, thanks to the evolution of the passing game over the last decade. 

So, call him what you will, and use your preferred nickname of choice – but understand with it you are talking about the league’s most efficient all-around player at his given position. Truth be told, no one has had the profound impact in every area (pass, run, blitz), and can do it all at the safety position, like Harrison Smith.

  

Smith putting it altogether as an in-the-box safety who creates pressure off the edge, and then uses his elite instincts, aggressive nature, and play-making tools to force an interception

 

 

 

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