Harrison Smith resurrects his role as the Vikings' finisher

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No defensive back in the NFL this season has blitzed more than Harrison Smith, but until Sunday you would never have known it. Smith had been as culpable as the rest of his teammates for an alarming start that prompted grave concerns about the Minnesota Vikings' capacity to improve their defense in 2023.

As he moved about the field largely unnoticed, it was fair to ask some big questions. Smith is a six-time Pro Bowl safety, but at age 34, could he still be a difference-maker? Did the Vikings make a mistake in bringing him back for another season? Was he as good of a fit for defensive coordinator Brian Flores' scheme as initially believed?

Following Sunday's 21-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers, we can for the first time offer an optimistic answer to those questions. Smith produced a monster game, albeit against the worst offense and least experienced quarterback the Vikings have faced this season.

He recorded three sacks, tying the most he has ever had in a full season, including two that changed the trajectory of the game. His third-quarter strip sack of Panthers quarterback Bryce Young was returned 51 yards for a touchdown by linebacker D.J. Wonnum, giving the Vikings their first lead of the game. Smith then sealed the victory with a sack on fourth down that ended the Panthers' final offensive possession.

"We're the best possible version of the Minnesota Vikings defensively when Harrison Smith is an impact player," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "We're going to continue to try to put him in positions to do so. He is selfless. He'll do whatever we ask him to do. But I hope he's OK with being put in a lot of positions to go make plays."

Smith excelled earlier in his career with a multifaceted skill set that Flores highly values. In fact, when O'Connell and Flores began meeting to map out their schematic plans this offseason, the conversation "all centered around No. 22," O'Connell said. After Smith spent last season playing in a more passive scheme, O'Connell and Flores were determined to return him to the line of scrimmage, involve him in the pass rush, and get him closer to the ball in coverage.

That intent didn't generate much success in the first three weeks of the season. Smith blitzed 20 times during that span, including a career-high 14 times in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Chargers, but didn't generate a single pressure. The Chargers used a quick passing game that beat the Vikings' blitz purely on timing, while a week earlier, the Philadelphia Eagles had shifted into a power running attack that exploited personnel mismatches.

Sunday, however, the Panthers didn't have as many answers. Two of Smith's sacks came when he was unblocked. On the third, he ran around Panthers left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and caught Young from behind.

"I felt like I wasn't really a difference-maker [in the first three games]," Smith said. "I've always thought of myself that way. I think everyone should think of themselves that way. Otherwise, what are you doing out there? Today I made them and I've got to keep doing that when my number is called. And when other guys are called, same thing. We have a lot of good players here. As long as we do whatever we're asked to do, things are going to present themselves."

Overall, Smith blitzed eight times -- more than in any game of his career except Week 3. True to his nature, he said afterward that he just happened to be the player in position to make those plays.

"It's whoever's role on that play to make the play," he said. "Didn't have to be me."

But on multiple occasions this season, the Vikings have seen free blitzers run past the quarterback, or even fall over him. With the possible exception of linebacker Danielle Hunter, Smith is the Vikings' most reliable finisher in those situations. It's no surprise that Flores is doing whatever he can to maximize his chances. Sunday, it paid off.