EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There have been at least two occasions this season when I've felt compelled to pause the DVR, grab my NFC North master roster and confirm what position No. 22 plays for the Minnesota Vikings. Rest assured. Harrison Smith is in fact a safety, and he is already -- by default, if nothing else -- the best safety the Vikings have employed in years.
It's been a while since we've seen a safety make a significant game-changing play for the Vikings, and Smith has two of them in four games this season. In Week 1, he lunged to tip away a third-down pass from Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Laurent Robinson in overtime, forcing the Jaguars into a make-or-break fourth down they failed to convert. And last Sunday at Ford Field, Smith's well-timed hit on Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson broke up a certain touchdown in the end zone.
No penalty flags were thrown. Indeed, as Smith has demonstrated, there is nothing illegal about a safety making a play.
"He was facing one of the best passing offenses in the league on Sunday," coach Leslie Frazier said, "and to make some of the plays he made and to play with the awareness that he played with, we hadn't seen that at the safety position in awhile here. It was good to see a guy play with such poise, play with control, not panic …. It's been impressive watching some of the things he does and the way he practices, the way he prepares, he's doing a good job."
Smith has made his share of mistakes, of course, but he has also made plays that the average observer wouldn't realize he deserves credit for. According to defensive coordinator Alan Williams, Smith broke up a third-quarter deep pass to Johnson on Sunday essentially by instinct.
"That wasn't necessarily his play," Williams said. "He did a great job of coming from the backside and making a play on the football. He does that more often than not. There have been some plays where he's made up for some other people. When I was in Indianapolis, coach [Tony] Dungy would call that, so to speak, 'The Eraser.' He can erase some mistakes that maybe other people make."
Indeed, when you watch the play, you see Smith set to defend the right side of the field from the defense's perspective. Fellow safety Jamarca Sanford was lined up over the top of Johnson and two other Lions receivers on the left side. It appeared Sanford was supposed to bracket Johnson deep while cornerback Antoine Winfield had him short.
Winfield began frantically pointing toward Sanford after passing Johnson off, but Sanford got turned around and was near the sideline when Johnson cut inside on a circle post route. Quarterback Matthew Stafford rolled to that sideline and launched the ball. But as he did that, Smith drifted toward Johnson and was in position for an interception before Johnson barreled into him.
"I didn't have a lot of work on my side of the field," Smith said. "The quarterback was rolling left, so I naturally rolled that way and got depth. You never know what's going to happen with the quarterback, and the guys in this league, especially Stafford, have the arms to throw it as far as they want. Just rolled and got depth."
Smith shrugged when I asked him if he realized the context of the plays he has made this season.
"I expect to make plays like that," he said. "I think most safeties that go out there today do. Honestly, I think I should have picked that deep ball off. He did a nice job getting his hands in there, but those are plays I want to make and get better in the future."
Whoa, Eraser, don't go talking crazy there. You don't even realize what you've already erased.