On the final play of the Vikings’ 28-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota finally got the interception that had eluded it all night.
Jayron Kearse hauled in Dak Prescott’s Hail Mary heave as time expired, the lone turnover in an otherwise clean offensive game. But only clean because the Vikings had missed on several earlier interceptions.
“We said we had three [that we] could of, should of, would of had,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.
Mackensie Alexander dropped an interception that could’ve ended the game three plays before the eventual Hail Mary, Anthony Harris nearly picked one off midway through the first quarter, and Mike Hughes dropped a potential interception that might’ve gone the distance in the second quarter.
“I’ve got to get back in the lab, work on my hands, man,” Hughes said after the game. “Should have at least four picks by now.”
No surprise, most defensive backs seem to have similar laments.
“The receivers make a living on it,” said Zimmer, “and DBs, that’s probably why they’re playing over there.”
NFL defensive backs are among the most gifted athletes on a football field, having played skill positions in high school or community college, in some cases. But using their hands for anything besides pressing wide receivers can quickly become an underused skill.
“Most defensive backs have probably played offense in high school,” said safety Harrison Smith, who played running back and receiver at Knoxville Catholic, “but over time you just don’t spend that much time with the ball in your hands once you get to college, get to pros. There’s more and more time away from just naturally catching the football. It’s not a crazy task, but sometimes I think it can become a mental thing.”
Smith says he works on the automated JUGS machine every week catching balls, though he admits it’s not the most realistic simulation. Quarterbacks never target them directly like the machine, many interceptions are either redirected or contested, and defensive backs often have their head turned toward a receiver instead of the ball as it’s thrown.
Vikings defensive backs practice catching short passes out of their breaks at the beginning of practice, and their pre-game routine includes catching fades along the sideline. But these drills can’t mimic the reality that defensive backs are never the true target of a quarterback’s pass.
“It’s different when somebody’s throwing the ball to you and somebody’s throwing the ball to someone else and you’re breaking on the ball,” Zimmer said. “All of a sudden it gets there quicker than you anticipated or it’s in a little different spot.”
Hughes’ only interception came in his first career game in Week 1 of 2018. San Francisco’s wide receiver slipped on his route, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw the ball right to Hughes, who strutted in for a touchdown.
They don’t all come gift-wrapped like that.
“You’ve got to know that the quarterback’s not trying to throw you the ball,” said Hughes, “so whenever you get a chance to get your hands on it, you’ve got to come up with those plays. It’s huge down the stretch whenever you can get your offense the ball whenever they’re hot, whenever we need to get the momentum. So whenever we can get a chance to get our hands to the ball we really try to come down with them. I’ve got to do a better job of coming down with them because I’ve had plenty of opportunities.”
Hughes, also the Vikings’ punt returner, was an electric skill player at Garden City Community College before he transferred to Central Florida and became a first-round draft prospect at corner. He knows what he can do with the ball in his hands. In his spare time, Hughes says he performs reaction drills where he has to catch tennis balls at short distances.
“During the season it’s hard to get a lot of extra work because you want to take care of your body,” Hughes said. “You want to protect your body, and it’s a long season, so just little drills like that, they always help.”
Hughes pointed to Smith when asked who had the most natural hands in the secondary. Zimmer also identified Smith, along with fellow safety Anthony Harris as being particularly skilled. Smith is the team’s active leader with 21 career interceptions, while Harris leads the 2019 squad with three.
But Smith still focuses on the ones that escaped him.
“I’ve still dropped my fair share of interceptions in my career,” he said, “and I think a lot of them are because I’m not thinking of catching the ball. I’m thinking of getting to my spot, covering my guy and turning around. That’s why I try to get used to catching a ball because you rarely get the, ‘Well, here comes the ball. I’m going to go catch it now.'”
And when there are near-misses in the secondary, Smith says there’s not much razzing or finger-pointing from the defensive backs group.
“You don’t want to always be crushing guys for dropping balls because it can become a mental thing for guys,” Smith said. “Have confidence, be an athlete, you’re here for a reason. You’ve made plenty of plays in your life, go be confident, go get the ball. I think that’s the mentality that normally works out the best.”