EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- At the time of Harrison Smith's turf toe injury, which put the Vikings' rising star safety on injured reserve in October, it appeared a flailing group of defensive backs had lost its only playmaker. Smith was the only Vikings defensive back with an interception, and he looked on his way to taking another step forward after an impressive rookie season.
He is due to return from an eight-week absence on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, but the difference is, the Vikings feel confident enough in what they've got at safety that they won't rush Smith back into action. That's largely because of Andrew Sendejo, who has started much of the season with either Smith or Jamarca Sanford dealing with injuries and finally appears to be turning a corner.
He had an interception last week against the Baltimore Ravens, and had a second one called back because of a questionable pass interference penalty on Chad Greenway. That interception would have sealed a Vikings victory, and Sendejo was effective in run support, as well.
The fact that he's started to come around after a number of rough weeks has the Vikings feeling like they can ease Smith back into the lineup, especially against an Eagles team that figures to test his conditioning. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Eagles have run 249 plays in 30 seconds or less after their previous play. That's the most in the NFL, and the Vikings' defense has seen just 58 plays at that rate, which is tied for the 11th-fewest in the league.
"I've tried to work on my conditioning since I've been off, but there's nothing quite like when the lights come on, especially with this offense," Smith said. "They're faster than most. Really, just see how it goes, because you can't simulate it."
Once Smith is back to full speed, there's little doubt he'll be playing on every snap; he's simply too valuable to the Vikings' defense for a different approach. But it will be interesting to see how things shake out between Sendejo and Sanford going forward; Sanford earned a two-year contract after a solid 2012 season, but hasn't played as well this year as he did last season. Sendejo got into some trouble earlier this season when he tried to take too many chances in coverage, but he looked more sure of himself last week against the Ravens.
"That's not up to me. That's not up to those guys. That's up to the guys upstairs," Smith said. "That's something we don't control, and all three of us are real close friends, so we're not really worried about that."