There’s a common saying in the NFL, that father time is undefeated. In recent years we’ve seen certain elite players fend that truth off for longer stretches. However, the end usually comes quite suddenly for those aging gracefully, even for the all-time greats. The same appears to be true for should-be Hall of Fame safety Harrison “The Hit Man” Smith.
Smith has long been the engine of the Vikings’ defense. Even during down years for the defense as a whole, like 2022 was, Smith has typically shined. He also showed very little sign of regression at age 33 a season ago, coming away with 5 interceptions. Despite being on a terrible defense, PFF gave him a solid grade. That can be very difficult for any safety to achieve, as the position is more reliant on the overall defense than most. His peers also rewarded him by making him one of the oldest players on the NFL Top 100.
Going into his age 34 season expectations for Smith were once again high. How could they not be given his graceful aging to date and the hiring of Brian Flores to fix the defense? Two weeks into 2023, it’s beginning to look like putting those expectations on the veteran safety may have been overzealous.
Harrison Smith’s Week 1 and 2 Performance
The Viking defense as a whole has actually been vastly improved to this point from a season ago. Flores has been blitzing like a madman, sending pressure on almost half of defensive snaps this season. Normally, Harrison Smith would be expected to feast on those opportunities. He’s often recognized as one of the most effective blitzers in the NFL since he broke into the league. To date, he’s been unable to get home on a surprisingly limited number of opportunities given the overall defensive philosophy. It could simply be that Flores trusts the veteran safety to play deep on an island with the number of extra blitzers he brings every other play. Regardless, it’s been strange to see Smith make such little impact off the edge early in the season.
When Smith has been in the box, he’s also had a surprisingly difficult time making tackles in the run game. Smith’s tackling ability has long been a hallmark of his game, regularly wrapping up elite runners in open space. This season there have been more highlights of him whiffing on one-on-one tackles than making them. The one that stands out most from the first two weeks was DeAndre Swift’s second touchdown run on Thursday night. Smith had the opportunity to stop Swift short of the goal line, and Swift juked him out of his shoes. That’s just not the type of play one typically would expect to see from Harrison Smith.
While always to be taken with a grain of salt, Smith’s general ineffectiveness has also been reflected in his mediocre 56.6 PFF grade. The first few games of the season just haven’t been up to Smith’s lofty standard of play. It’s becoming fair to wonder how much Smith has left in the tank.
Potential to Rebound
Brian Flores has deployed a lot of three-safety looks early in the season. And to this point, the other starters, Camryn Bynum and Josh Metellus, have outplayed Smith in all facets. To be fair Bynum and Metellus have both been stellar, but that’s typically what fans have come to expect from Harry. Smith isn’t holding this defense back to date, but neither is he contributing to its success.
Maybe the key for Harrison Smith to rebound this season would be to start making splash plays in the passing game. Flores has been using him in coverage at such a high rate, that one would typically expect Smith to have some on-ball impact by this point. To date, he has had 0 passes defensed of any kind. Given the production Smith showed as a primary deep safety last season, his start on that front has been confounding. Either that will need to change in the coming weeks or Flores may need to redefine his role some. Perhaps getting him more involved in the frequent blitz packages or playing him in the box more often could be the solution. Smith has such a high football IQ that he should be able to adjust roles on the fly.
Minnesota’s next game against the Chargers is of the must-win nature given their 0-2 start. The Vikings are going to have their hands full against a formidable Charger passing attack. “The Hit Man” breaking out of this mini slump and proving he’s still a Pro Bowl-level safety would be a welcome occurrence for this defense.
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