A Mismatch Nightmare Returns to Vikings Offense

Jan 3, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions strong safety Duron Harmon (26) tackles Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

While fans are excited about the free agency moves Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is making, let’s look into the future. The Vikings offense is ready for an upgrade in 2022 as a mismatch nightmare returns to the Vikings offense. Irv Smith Jr. will be returning as the starting tight end for the Vikings this year, and it’s going to be glorious.

During the 2021 training camp, Irv Smith Jr. suffered a meniscus injury. The injury inevitably needed to be surgically repaired, ending the season for Smith Jr. This was a huge blow to the Vikings’ offense last year. During training camp, people were raving about how he was poised for a breakout year.

Irv Smith Jr.
Jan 3, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith (84) before the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

While Courtney Cronin was a beat reporter for the Vikings, she wrote an amazing piece about how Irv Smith Jr. was preparing for the 2021 season. However, his breakout season never got off the ground. Adam Schefter announced via Twitter that he would be having season-ending surgery:

Tyler Conklin quickly became the number-one tight end for the Vikings. He had a great season which ended with 61 catches for 593 yards and three touchdowns. This was good enough for him to land a 3-year $21 million deal with the Jets.

But now, Irv Smith Jr. is gearing up and will be ready to tear it up with Jefferson and Thielen for the 2022 season.

What Does He Bring to the Vikings Offense?

Irv Smith Jr. is a unique talent. He is too big and slow to be a wide receiver. However, he is faster and a better route-runner than the majority of the tight ends in the NFL. His pass-catching ability is just as good as wide receivers too.

Irv Smith Jr. is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. More often than not, a tight end will be covered by a linebacker. A linebacker covering Smith Jr. is a huge mismatch that will be exploited by the Vikings in the 2022 season. Watch this route Nick Olson posted:

When a player can consistently get open, you will have a productive offense. Although, the most important aspect to Irv Smith Jr. is it will allow the Vikings to attack the seams of the defense. The seam is the area on the left or right of the quarterback over the middle of the field – typically the hash marks.

If the Vikings utilize him this way, which I suspect they will, it will fix a problem they had all year in 2021. They were unable, or simply unwilling, to attack the seams of the defense. However, that is about to change.

O’Connell’s Scheme Bring out the Best Irv Smith Jr.

Kevin O’Connell’s scheme is one that likes to utilize 11 personnel frequently. 11 personnel means that there will be one tight end and one running back on the field. However, he has noted several times that he will evolve his scheme to highlight the talents of each player.

What does this mean for Irv Smith Jr.?

Well, I suspect it means they will try to create friendly matchups. Aka, Irv Smith Jr. one on one with a linebacker. How they will do so is a matter of scheme and route running. NFL teams run a variety of defenses, but many are converting to a zone-match sort of coverage. This means that a player has a specific zone they are covering, and when an offensive player enters that zone, the defender sticks with them.

The Vikings can and will exploit this with Irv Smith Jr., likely by having him run routes over the middle like a crossing route or corner route. More often than not, a linebacker will have to pick him up.

Hopefully, Kevin O’Connell can utilize Smith Jr.’s talents this way. If he does, watch out, we might have an All-Pro tight end on our team.