Harrison Smith’s Performance Is Unparalleled in NFL History

Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) tries to avoid a sack by Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone in the state of Minnesota knows about Harrison Smith, and he has been highly respected around the league for years but his Hall of Fame-worthy play hasn’t been enough to convince folks who vote for All-Pro teams and the average NFL fan barely knows who he is. He fired up another vintage Hitman performance on Sunday, putting the franchise on his back and willing the team to the first victory of the season.

Harrison Smith’s Performance Is Unparalleled in NFL History

The 0-3 Minnesota Vikings played another sloppy game. Kirk Cousins threw another red zone interception. While the previous two picks in that area can also be put on the receivers, it was undoubtedly his fault this time. He had a second pick when he was hit during the throw. The Vikings also added a bunch of penalties and once again, shot themselves in the foot multiple times to be down for the majority of the contest.

Performance Is Unparalleled in NFL History
Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) celebrates with linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) after a sack in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

But one guy changed the game and quite frankly, saved the season. Safety Smith was one of seven defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage, a common Brian Flores strategy to confuse the offense, and came off the edge, hunting down first-overall pick Bryce Young. By that point, the Vikes were down six points and desperately needed a game-changing play, and guess what, the team captain provided that and knocked the ball out. D.J. Wonnum scooped it up and scored a touchdown, giving the Vikings the lead.

Besides that one rep, Smith had a plethora of huge plays. He provided help in the running game, made tackles all over the field, and his coverage was solid. Another huge down was his sack to clinch the win in the final two minutes of the game on a fourth-down desperation play.

Throughout the Week 4 matchup against Adam Thielen’s Panthers, Smith racked up 14 combined tackles, 3 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. That’s a historical stat line, as no player ever produced the same or better numbers in a single game.

Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) warms up before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Smith is 34 years old and the oldest safety in the NFL. In the first couple of games of the 2023 season, Smith looked slow at times and subsequently caused Vikings fans to think he had regressed to a point where he was only a shadow of himself. However, his Week 4 play was outstanding. He looked as great as ever.

The thing that made Smith great for a long time was his versatility. Mike Zimmer could use as a deep safety to take away the deep passing element, but Smith also regularly lined up in the box to defend the run or rush the passer. At times, Smith’s football IQ made it possible for him to simply call his own blitzes on the field to instinctually make a play.

Brian Flores Changed the Vikings Offseason
Dec 4, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) returns an interception off New York Jets quarterback Mike White (not pictured) as cornerback Patrick Peterson. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Ed Donatell almost exclusively used him as a deep coverage safety. That led to five interceptions but also robbed him of his versatility.

The addition of Flores changed the dynamic as he loves to put QBs under pressure, allowing Smith to rush the passer. That didn’t work out well in the first three games but had a remarkable effect on the defense in Carolina. Smith agrees with that assessment: “I felt like I wasn’t really a difference-maker (over the first three weeks) and I’ve always thought of myself that way. I think every guy should think of themselves that way. Otherwise, like, what are you doing out there?”

He has been a difference-maker for more than a decade and he still is one. On Sunday, however, he wasn’t just a difference-maker, he was THE difference between winning and losing, between 0-4 and 1-3.

can grab momentum
Aug 3, 2023; Eagan, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell and team owner Ziggy Wilf talk at training camp at TCO Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

Head coach Kevin O’Connell spoke about his star defender and how Flores and he envisioned using him: “I could remember talking to Flo the first time I ever sat down with him last winter, and as we started talking about the possibilities, that safety group as a whole, it was an exciting conversation that all centered around No. 22. Getting him around the line of scrimmage, getting him involved in the rush, getting his hands on balls in coverage, making plays in space, tackling. He’s been doing it for his whole career and it’s just good to see him back in positions to make huge plays to impact football games.”

Before the season, the Hitman contemplated retiring but returned after taking a pay cut to stay with the organization that drafted him. Rick Spielman was in charge in 2012 and picked the Notre Dame defender with the 29th overall pick. Since then, he made six trips to the Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro once in 2017. Most Vikings fans would agree that he was snubbed many other times.

The play-callers changed over the years, just like his teammates. He played next to Andrew Sendejo for a while, Anthony Harris had a couple of nice seasons, and Camryn Bynum is enjoying a breakout season as the other safety.

1 Viking Significantly More
Dec 4, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) reacts after breaking up a pass against the New York Jets during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Smith has played 163 regular season games in the purple jersey, recorded 34 interceptions which ranks him second among active players (one behind Patrick Peterson who gained a one-pick lead in Week 3), he has put up 974 tackles, and 19.5 sacks.

Head coach Kevin O’Connell expectedly praised his defensive leader: “Just an unbelievable performance today. Does not surprise me one bit. He’s somebody who I lean on constantly. One of my all-time favorites. And when we had to have it, he was at his best today.”

Indeed, the Vikings had to have it. Climbing out of a 0-4 hole is almost impossible. Now at 1-3, some hope has returned to TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota. The team barely escaped with a victory, so every single one of Smith’s heroic plays was necessary.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt