Rookie safety provides much-needed big play in victory over Cardinals
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Harrison Smith wasn't happy with himself.
Playing on a defense that emphasizes converting turnovers into points, the Minnesota Vikings rookie free safety had an excellent opportunity to pick off a pass but instead dropped the football.
Fortunately for Smith, that miscue came in practice.
On Sunday, given the same opportunity against the Arizona Cardinals, Smith did not fail to hold onto the ball in the Vikings' 21-14 victory.
On their opening drive of the third quarter, trailing 14-7, the Cardinals faced a third-and-6 from their own 24-yard line when quarterback John Skelton was forced to race up in the pocket as pressure was applied. Skelton delivered a throw that was intended for wide receiver Early Doucet but was picked off by Smith at the Cardinals 31-yard line.
Smith cut to his right, attempting to avoid tacklers. Two Arizona players dived but missed him at the Cardinals 21-yard line. Smith continued to move to his right and outraced the rest of the Cardinals to get into the corner of the end zone.
So when did the 29th pick in last April's draft think it was going to be realistic for him to get into the end zone?
"When you're a defensive guy and you get your hands on the ball, I think everybody thinks, 'I'm going to score,'" Smith said. "There are so few opportunities, you just think, 'I'm doing anything to get in the end zone.' So that was (my thought) right away."
Said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier when asked how the play unfolded: "We were in a coverage where we double No. 11 (Larry Fitzgerald) and we end up with a guy that's kind of seeing the quarterback that can roll him a little bit and that happened to be Harrison on that play.
"He did a great job of reading the quarterback. But our d-line did a terrific job all day of creating pressure on the quarterback. They got the quarterback off tempo a little bit. He scrambled, he moved around and Harrison stepped in and made a huge play for our football team."
Smith's TD made the score 21-7 and proved to be a key touchdown when the Cardinals pulled within seven points with 1 minute, 48 seconds left on Skelton's 6-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts.
Smith's interception was the first of his NFL career and marked the first time the Vikings had returned an interception for a touchdown since defensive end Jared Allen did it in the 2010 regular-season finale in Detroit.
Smith is the first rookie on the defensive side of the ball to score a touchdown off an interception since Mike Nattiel had one in 2003, and he's the first Vikings defensive back to do it since safeties Dwight Smith and Darren Sharper ran picks back for scores on Nov. 25, 2007 in a 41-17 victory over the New York Giants.
"That's what we preach every day is running to the ball, hitting, executing and getting turnovers and once we get turnovers, trying to bring it to the house," defensive end Brian Robison said. "He did a heck of a job."
Smith, who started 47 of 51 games in four seasons at Notre Dame and had seven interceptions during that time (all in 2010), said he had not scored a touchdown since he was playing at Knoxville Catholic High School. Of course, he was a standout running back and defensive back in those days.
Smith said the football that he carried into the end zone Sunday will be sent to his parents in Tennessee for safe keeping. Actually, he's lucky he even has the ball.
After scoring, Smith threw the ball to the ground. Williams, however, was looking out for his young teammate and recovered the souvenir.
"I was like, I thought it was his first interception, so I wanted to make sure he got that and held onto it," Williams said.
Smith's pick was only the Vikings' fourth of the season, but is the first of many that will be expected to come from the hard-hitting safety. That is why the Vikings made a draft-night trade with the Ravens to get back into the first round to take him.
The Vikings have long needed an upgrade at safety and Smith has provided them with that.
"It's a breath of fresh air some of the things that he's doing and has been doing throughout the season," 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."