Smith sparks Vikings secondary with key plays

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Harrison Smith, the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie safety, has come through with key plays this season rarely seen from Minnesota’s secondary in years.

Smith broke a 79-game drought for the Vikings secondary on Sunday with a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first drive of the second half, which ended up being the winning score in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

The Vikings’ streak dates all the way back to Nov. 25, 2007. The 41-17 win on the road against the New York Giants that day had been the last time a Minnesota defensive back had returned an interception for a touchdown. In the win, safeties Dwight Smith and Darren Sharper each returned an interception for a touchdown.

Smith is proving to be the biggest playmaking safety the Vikings have had since Sharper.

“It’s a breath of fresh air some of the things that he’s doing, and has been doing throughout the season,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “The tackles, the presence that we have with him, and to be able to find a way to get that ball in the end zone, that was a good run by Harrison. But he came off the pressure. A guy being in position who had a chance to make a play made the play, and that’s what you need.”

Smith has been making the timely play all season, helping transform a secondary that was historically bad in 2011 and turn the Vikings’ defense into one of the top units in the NFL. Sunday’s interception was the first of his short NFL career. He only has 17 tackles in seven games, but he leads Minnesota (5-2) with eight pass deflections and also has a fumble recovery.

But Smith’s impact has been far reaching, most notably the physical presence he’s added to the Vikings’ defense.

“The things he’s doing aren’t always on the stat sheet,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “He’s where he’s supposed to be, whether it’s a big hit, whether it’s a knockdown, whether it’s just taking a guy away. Our back end is doing a good job right now.”

Allen was the last Minnesota defender to return an interception for a score, in the final game of the 2010 season. Before that, the Vikings had to go back to 2007 before any such touchdowns.

Somewhat lost in the midst of Minnesota’s maneuvering in the first round of April’s draft were the extra picks acquired while dropping back one spot and still securing their prized possession, left tackle Matt Kalil, at No. 4 overall.

The Vikings netted additional fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks from the Cleveland Browns, giving general manager Rick Spielman enough assets, and willingness, to leap back into the first round for Smith out of Notre Dame.

Sunday, Smith again proved it was a wise decision by Spielman and the Vikings. Smith had five tackles along with his first touchdown since his high school days.

“As soon as you get the ball you know, especially as a defender, you don’t get a lot of chances to do that. So, you just get excited and do whatever you can to get in the end zone.”

With Smith playing a key role, Minnesota’s defense might be the biggest revelation in the team’s amazing start. Despite a league-high 50 sacks last season, the Vikings secondary allowed a league-high 34 passing touchdowns and a 68.2 completion percentage and had a league-low eight interceptions.

This season, Minnesota entered its Week 7 game ranked in the NFL’s top 11 against the run and pass and has done it with a total team approach. That was never more apparent than on Sunday. The Vikings combined for seven sacks against Arizona and held quarterback John Skelton to 19 of 30 for 183 yards passing until the Cardinals’ final drive, a 7-play, 79-yard drive which ended in a Skelton touchdown pass to Andre Roberts.

Skelton finished 25 of 36 for 262 yards with one TD and one interception. Minnesota also limited Larry Fitzgerald to four catches for 29 yards.

Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield looks revitalized in his 14th NFL season, and he came up with a big stop on fourth down in the third quarter after Arizona had gotten into scoring position. Winfield stepped up after Skelton had rolled out and stopped the quarterback for a loss and a turnover on downs, earning one of the sacks.

“It’s fun; last year was a struggle,” Winfield said, adding: “We’ve got guys that have some experience playing with each other. We have a young group, besides myself. But I enjoy playing with these young guys. They’re competing and making plays.”

Cornerback Chris Cook, who helped the Vikings hold Detroit’s Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson to five catches and 54 yards in a win earlier this year, had the responsibility of jamming Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage and knocking another top receiver off his game.

“We just did our thing,” said Cook, who had an interception on a jump ball intended for Fitzgerald, negated by an offsides. “We wanted to slow him down at the line and prevent him from getting down the field. Those big shots that they like to throw to him and (No.) 12 (Andre Roberts). We just put our hands on him and slowed him down a little bit.”

And with a lead and a strong secondary, Allen and Brian Robison went to work, combining for five of the seven sacks. Robison had the first three-sack game of his career and forced a fumble. Allen had two sacks and Kevin Williams added another.

“You know that you’ve got time to make a second move,” Allen said of the support this season from the secondary. “And when guys are rushing like that, it allows (the secondary) to play tighter coverage. If he’s back there all day, they’re wondering what to do. But when we’re heating them up and they know, ‘OK, he’s only got about two-and-half seconds to get the ball out.’ They can sit on moves and they can make plays like that. Rush and coverage works together. It’s hard to rush without coverage and it’s hard to cover without a rush.”

And in having a rookie safety play with the confidence and poise of a veteran — and an aggressive edge — Minnesota’s defense showed Sunday it can carry the team.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.