It was another heartbreaking loss in Seattle as the Minnesota Vikings dropped to 0-5 in their last five meetings at CenturyLink Field. It featured the typical Russell Wilson late game heroics that had Vikings fans hypnotically mumbling to themselves “I’ve seen this movie before, and I remember how this one ends.” If that was you on your couch last Sunday night then congratulations, you were one of many who sniffed out the Vikings’ one-point loss, watching the Seahawks score the game-winning touchdown in dramatic fashion on fourth and goal.
Despite doing everything right on paper like controlling the time and tempo of the game, and being up what felt like a commanding 13-0 lead walking into the halftime tunnel, the Vikings dropped to 1-4 and are poised to draft inside the top 10 for the first time since Mike Zimmer’s first season as head coach. But if you look in the right places, you’ll find some positives.
Despite having just one in the win column, this team has seen major improvements in multiple position groups and statistical categories. When you take a step back away from all the turmoil and state of panic that comes with being 1-4, it’s easy to forget the Vikings four losses have come at the hands of teams with a ridiculous combined record of 14-2, with the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers all undefeated.
On that 23-yard catch #Vikings TE Irv Smith Jr. exceeded his total for the first four games combined. He had 14 total yards in the first four.
— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) October 12, 2020
It wasn’t all bad news Sunday for the Vikings and Gary Kubiak’s offense that finally found ways to get second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. involved. He was a clear focal point of the offensive script versus Seattle’s suspect pass defense.
Smith was Kirk Cousins’ very first target of the game on a quick five-yard slant showcasing his versatility to stand up out wide near the boundary, resembling a big-bodied wide receiver. The very next play Kubiak dialed up No. 84 without hesitation, demanding he do his part in helping Smith find his own heartbeat in the Vikings offense, even if he had to force it in the early goings. The result was beautiful, as Smith layed out for a Superman dive, hauling in a 23-yard pass by Cousins with the rain pouring down under the primetime lights, and more importantly gave Smith some much-needed confidence again after getting off to such a sluggish start in the 2020 season.
As a top-50 pick Smith built himself a nice little start to his career, a good jumping off point to his sophomore campaign. Despite being the clear-cut No. 2 tight end behind veteran and team captain Kyle Rudolph, Smith cashed in 36 catches on 47 targets for 311 yards and even found the end zone twice despite hovering around 60% of the offense’s snaps. More importantly Smith did a nice job getting his feet wet in the blocking game, a critical part of Kubiak’s zone heavy offense that utilizes constant two- and even three-tight-end looks with a high demand on their tight ends being able to both catch and block. With the luxury of having built-in football genes thanks to his dad Irv Smith Sr., a former first-round tight end himself, along with learning the on-field nuances and adjustments from one of the league’s best in Rudolph, Smith picked up the playbook quickly and flashed some exciting athleticism for the position, carving out high hopes for the future.
Prior to the Vikings Week 5 matchup with Seattle, however, Smith was virtually non-existent. After making one catch in garbage time Week 1 vs. the Packers, Smith hit a major snag vs. the Indianapolis Colts in what may go down as his worst game of his young career. Although it wasn’t a lack of physical effort or opportunities, Irv’s final stat sheet read a sad and lonely one catch for just three yards with four passes thrown his way. What landed Smith in the coaches’ doghouse, though, was not one but two critical penalties that set the offense in a major hole they could never dig out of. There was a 15-yard crackback block that set up 1st and 20 — a penalty Mike Zimmer called “a drive killer before it even started” — and an offensive pass interference call on Smith negating his own catch and run of 19 yards at a critical juncture of the game. After the 0-2 start, Smith saw his playing time cut the following week vs. Tennessee. He failed to see one ball thrown his way, and he was on the field for just 36 plays.
The Houston game made it four games in a row Smith had not had more than two receptions or 11 yards receiving.
That was until Sunday when Smith busted out in a big way, catching four of his five targets for 64 yards. But far beyond just the box score was the timing and impact Smith had for his offense, helping move the chains and convert first downs on three of those passes at critical junctures of the game. None were bigger than his third quarter grab with 7:08 to play and his team desperate for any sign of life after watching the Seahawks come back and score 21 unanswered points, dissolving the Vikings’ 13-point halftime lead within minutes. Smith took a deep crossing pattern from one side of the field to the opposite hash and not only hauled in a 20-plus-yard pass completion but absorbed a blow to the head by Tre Flowers to tack on another 15 yards.
In total, Smith pushed his offense up the field further than it had been all second half in just one play and put on display his big playmaking ability that many, including myself, clamored for when he was taken with the Vikings’ second-round pick. In a dire situation where the offense had to get something going, Smith came through with a big play in a big time moment and hopefully can carry this newfound momentum with him throughout the rest of the season.
Kubiak and the Vikings should look to carve out a role for him as the third weapon in the passing game and continue to find soft spots against the opposing defenses trying to contain Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook. That three-headed monster has quietly thrust the Vikings offense into position as the eighth best unit in the entire NFL, according to DVOA. Smith will have plenty of big opportunities for more splash plays this Sunday vs. the Falcons, who currently own one of the league’s worst pass defenses against opposing tight ends and also happen to be in the midst of a head coaching change with Dan Quinn being fired earlier this week.