EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For the better part of a decade, the Vikings have been looking for the kind of playmaker in the secondary they haven't had since Darren Sharper's best days with the team in 2005 and 2006. Sharper intercepted nine passes after signing with the Vikings in 2005, and picked off four in each of the next two seasons. He returned three interceptions for touchdowns and made two Pro Bowls, joining with Antoine Winfield to form the bedrock of the team's secondary as the Vikings shuttled through players at their other two spots.
When Sharper left after 2008, though, so did much of the Vikings' ability to create turnovers in the secondary. They've had one season since then where a defensive back had at least four interceptions (Cedric Griffin in 2009). In 2011, when the Vikings allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a 107.6 passer rating, they picked off just eight passes while allowing 34 touchdowns.
Those statistics undoubtedly weighed heavily on general manager Rick Spielman's mind as he traded back into the first round to take Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith in the 2012 draft. And through 21 starts with the Vikings, Smith has delivered what the team had hoped for: a hard-hitting, instinctive safety with a nose for the ball and a knack for big plays. He intercepted three passes, returning two for touchdowns, in his rookie season, and had two interceptions in the Vikings' first five games this season. Smith forced a fumble last year, and recovered one both last year and this year. The Vikings have seven interceptions this year, and Smith is the only defensive back with one so far.
That's a big part of why the team's decision to put Smith on injured reserve with a designation to return, as first reported by ESPN's Josina Anderson, hurts the Vikings so much. Smith had become the anchor of a young secondary and an emerging star on defense largely because of his ability to play with both aggression and smarts. He's shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time, able to walk the fine line of taking chances without getting burned for big plays. He's yet to give up a reception longer than 22 yards in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, and after he gave up just three touchdowns last year, the only touchdown Smith has allowed this year was the last-minute pass Cleveland's Brian Hoyer dropped just beyond Smith's reach, hitting Jordan Cameron for a game-winning score in Week 3. And what's more, he's been one of the best run-stoppers on a team struggling there, too; PFF rated Smith the league's second-best safety against the run this year.
The Vikings' secondary has been ragged all season, and with Smith out, the team has lost one of its few playmakers on the back end of the defense. Minnesota has traditionally been able to mask issues in pass coverage with a relentless rush, but turnovers are another way to do that, too, and with just five sacks from the Vikings' defensive line this year, the team is running out of ways to atone for its lapses in coverage.
Minnesota will have to get better without Smith, while it hopes the second-year safety can return from turf toe yet this season. The Vikings could certainly use him now, and they've been waiting for a player like him for a long time.