Does Za'Darius Smith Need To Be Load-Managed?

Photo Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Champagne Problems in the National Football League. Fresh off their record-setting ninth consecutive one-score victory on Sunday against the New York Jets, the 10-2 Minnesota Vikings are two games back from the No. 1 seed. They’re also two games up in the loss-column on the San Francisco 49ers for the No. 2 seed. The No. 2 seed isn’t as glamorous as it used to be since the NFL changed its playoff format by adding a third wild card team in 2020. Gone are the days when the top-two seeds receive first-round byes. Instead, only the top seed gets a bye.

Should the Vikings spend the final five weeks of the regular season putting the pedal to the medal in hopes of catching the Philadelphia Eagles and aim for that bye? Or should they concede the NFC’s top spot and prioritize the health of some of their most important players? Why not take a page out of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s playbook and try to successfully live in both worlds?

For folks who aren’t the biggest National Basketball Association enthusiasts, allow me to try and make sense of what “load management” means. It essentially means that, while a player may not be hurt at a particular time, the team will sit an oft-injured player for a game or two to reduce the risk of serious injury.

One of the keys to Minnesota’s prolific start this season has been a large portion of the core players staying healthy and active through the first 13 weeks. Granted, the Vikings have found a way to overcome the temporary absences of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and left tackle Christian Darrisaw. But believe you me, the Vikings will need all hands on deck to make serious noise in January.

Another reason the Vikings are having so much success this season is the addition of edge rusher Za’Darius Smith. According to Pro Football Focus, the former Green Bay Packer leads the NFL with 63 pressures. Coming off a 2021 season where Smith only played in one regular-season game before returning for the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers, folks weren’t necessarily expecting Smith to return to form as one of the premier pass rushers in the league. He underwent back surgery last year and has been a mainstay on Minnesota’s injury report this year with a knee issue.

It’s fair to wonder if Smith’s recurring knee issues have played a role in his diminished production over the past few weeks. Look at how Smith’s pressure rates have dropped over the past three games.

  • Pressure rate over the first nine games: 19.2% (best in the NFL)
  • Pressure rate over the past three games: 8.4%

Smith isn’t the only oft-injured Vikings pass rusher who appears to be hitting a mid-season lull. Fellow B.M.F. member Danielle Hunter is experiencing a less substantial dip, but a dip nonetheless.

  • Pressure rate over the first nine games: 11.8%
  • Pressure rate over the past three games: 8.0%

Minnesota’s top two edge rushers have combined to miss 42 games since the 2020 season. It’s borderline a miracle that neither has missed any game action so far this year. Considering the current position the Vikings find themselves in the NFC standings, should Kevin O’Connell figure out an ideal time to protect Minnesota’s most prized defensive assets so they can be as healthy as possible when the playoffs roll around in mid-January?

It may not be a bad idea for O’Connell to hand out a DNP-CD (I promise, that’s my last NBA reference today) to Smith. The Vikings have a ton of depth at edge rusher with D.J. Wonnum and Patrick Jones II. On Tuesday’s virtual media availability, O’Connell lauded Jones II as one of the defense’s better run defenders lately. And Jones has proven more than capable of stepping into a more significant role when called upon. In Week 6, Wonnum was forced to miss the Miami Dolphins game with an illness. Jones responded by recording four pressures and two sacks in Miami. On Sunday, Jones also recorded Minnesota’s lone sack against the New York Jets.

Over the next two weeks, the Vikings play opponents with a combined 9-15-1 record in the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts. However, the Lions’ offense is not to be taken lightly, as they’re currently top-10 in the following:

  • points
  • yards
  • first downs
  • passing yards
  • passing touchdowns
  • rushing yards
  • rushing touchdowns

But if the priority is for this team to be clicking on all cylinders when win-or-go-home games present themselves in January, Skoldiers shouldn’t be alarmed the Vikings decide that Za’Darius Smith should miss a game or two.

As much as we want to dissect the validity of style points (or lack thereof) for the Vikings, there are truly only two things that matter in the NFL’s regular season:

  • Did we win?
  • Did we come out of the game healthy?

The quickest/easiest way to derail one’s season is by failing to check that second box. So far this year, the Vikings have checked both boxes more than every other team that doesn’t reside in Philadelphia. Just ask the San Francisco 49ers how they’re feeling about their chances in the upcoming playoffs after losing their second quarterback for the season. Or how about the Buffalo Bills after having to put All-Pro edge rusher Von Miller on short-term IR?

The Vikings have put themselves in a position where they can afford to drop a game or two down the stretch — especially if it means that one of their veteran superstars in Za’Darius Smith can rest up and get that knee to as close to 100% as possible.

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