EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Detroit Lions All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson has created nightmares for Minnesota Vikings coaches and defensive backs for five years, feasting on a secondary unable to handle his length and speed and often unwilling to be physical with the 6-foot-5, 239-pounder.
In nine games against Minnesota, Johnson had 41 catches for 575 yards and six touchdowns. Last season alone, Johnson had 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the two meetings.
Those times could be changing, thanks in part to a rookie safety.
Harrison Smith sent a message to Johnson — and other receivers around the league — Sunday when he broke up an apparent Johnson TD by laying a big hit on the big receiver after he hauled in a pass in the end zone. Smith’s blow knocked the ball out of Johnson’s usually sure hands and kept the momentum in the Vikings’ favor.
The message is clear: Don’t expect things to be so easy against Minnesota’s secondary in the future.
“We want people to have a second thought about us, not just think they’re running free down our defense,” Smith said. “That’s a defensive mindset for our whole defense.”
The Vikings are trying to play with a physical mindset, and having Smith on the back end of the defense alters the image opponents might have had about the secondary in past seasons. Smith, who was selected with the No. 29 pick in the first round of the draft after Minnesota sent the Nos. 35 and No. 98 picks to Baltimore, brings the hard-hitting mentality not seen in Vikings purple since Robert Griffith in the late 1990s and maybe even back to when Joey Browner was a Pro Bowl regular in the late ’80s.
Minnesota believed Smith had the all-around game to help on run defense, play well as a deep safety in the pass defense, as well as provide a physical presence.
“I think it definitely sends a message,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Both of those safeties (along with Jamarca Sanford) did a real good job of putting some stuff on tape that opposing offenses will look at, and hopefully think twice about going in those areas. I think it does send a message.”
The difference with Smith in the secondary was apparent very early, as the rookie wasn’t shy about hitting teammates even in training camp. Smith said he didn’t see it as any sort of message-sending, but the tone had been set, even as he got into a training camp scuffle with receiver Percy Harvin.
Smith, 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds, drew a $21,000 fine for an illegal hit on San Diego Chargers receiver Mike Willie in the third preseason game and vowed not to change. The hit on Johnson last Sunday, however, was legal — and lethal.
“That’s the idea, is if you get a couple of hits on a guy legally, you don’t want to do anything illegal, but they’ll be thinking about you and it might affect them,” Smith said.
Smith has injected a different style in a secondary that last season allowed a league-high 34 passing touchdowns, while tying a league low with eight interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks completed 68.2 percent of their passes, the second-highest total in the league, and opponents’ 107.6 quarterback rating was the second-highest in NFL history. Opposing quarterbacks and receivers felt all too comfortable picking apart an injured and undermanned secondary.
This season, the Vikings own the eighth-ranked defense in the league thanks in large part to better play in the secondary, which also has benefited from the return of starting cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook. Minnesota is 14th against the pass, allowing 228.3 yards per game as opposed to 251.2 last year. Opponents’ quarterback ratings are down to 88.8, which is 16th in the league, and a 62.2 percent completion rate is 17th in the NFL. After allowing the second-most points in the league last season (28.1 per game), the Vikings have allowed the seventh-least, an average of 18 per game.
Minnesota’s coaches got the chance to spend a lot of time with Smith when they coached the Senior Bowl last season. They knew the type of impact he could make and that he could probably do so right away. Smith wasn’t immediately given a starting role when the team started training camp, but his transition from Notre Dame to starting in the NFL didn’t take long. Smith said his first preseason game felt fast, but he has adjusted since then. Sunday’s game against Detroit was another example. On the first play of the second half, Smith ranged far from his side of the field to get into position and nearly had an interception going up for a ball that was intended for Johnson.
“He did a great job of coming from the back side and making a play on the football, and he does that more often than not,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “When I was in Indy, Coach (Tony) Dungy used to call that the, so to speak, eraser. That he can erase some mistakes that maybe other people make. That’s been a good thing that he’s done since he’s been here.”
Frazier has been impressed with Smith’s poise early in his rookie campaign.
“He’s not overwhelmed by any of the situations he’s been put in,” Frazier said. “He was facing one of the best passing offenses in the league on Sunday and to make some of the plays he made and to be able to play with the awareness that he played with, we haven’t seen that at the safety position in a while here.”
Opposing receivers like Johnson are quickly finding that out.