EAGAN, Minn. — Led by Harrison Smith, the Vikings safeties made an impact throughout the 2018 season.
Smith suited up for his seventh season in Purple and started all 16 games. The dynamic defensive back didn’t disappoint, consistently flying around the field and making plays, and his performance earned him a fourth consecutive trip to the upcoming Pro Bowl.
Smith led the Vikings secondary with 95 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss (team stats) and had at least one mark under every other defensive stat category, recording 3.0 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions and eight passes defended.
His three sacks tied for third among all safeties, and his four quarterback hits (league stats) ranked fifth.
Smith and fellow safety Anthony Harris had three interceptions apiece, which tied for third among safeties.
The Vikings began the season with Andrew Sendejo again starting alongside Smith. Sendejo played the first five games but suffered a groin injury that hindered him for the rest of the season. He was inactive Weeks 6-12 and appeared to slowly be readying for a return but suffered a setback and on Nov. 27 was added to Injured Reserve.
Harris stepped in admirably for Sendejo, making a career-high nine starts (previous high was three) in his fourth season in Minnesota. He notched a career-high six passes defended, which ranked 23rd among safeties.
“Anthony Harris has come in and proven that he can play in this league,” Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said in December. “He’s a smart guy, number one. I think he’s increased his physicality this year, but I also feel like one of the things he does well, he anticipates and he’s got good vision. Back there at [safety], that’s usually a good thing.”
Harris also remained a key player for the Vikings special teams unit, along with third-year safety Jayron Kearse.
Kearse contributed mainly on special teams but also was utilized on defense, more so during the first part of the season. Against the Jets in Week 7, he had the best defensive game of his career and took down rookie quarterback Sam Darnold for his first career sack. Kearse also was occasionally called upon to play nickel corner.
Kearse set career highs in solo tackles (four) and special teams tackles (four) against New Orleans and at New England, respectively.
The Vikings also added George Iloka to the fold this season, signing the veteran safety on Aug. 22.
Iloka had previous experience with Zimmer from their time together with the Bengals, but he was not heavily implemented into Minnesota’s defense. Iloka totaled just 11 tackles (team stats) on defense while also contributing on special teams, a role he seldom filled prior to joining the Vikings.
34 — Smith has started 34 consecutive regular-season games for the Vikings. The last time he missed a game was Week 13 of the 2016 season.
The night didn’t work out for the Vikings, but Harris had quite the individual performance at Chicago in Week 11.
On first-and-10 early in the second quarter, Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky threw deep and into traffic, targeting receiver Taylor Gabriel. Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks and Smith both were in the vicinity, but Harris made the play and came down with the interception. The pick halted Chicago’s drive and returned possession to Minnesota, who trailed by three.
Harris’ second takeaway of the night occurred late in the third quarter, and the Vikings were down 14-0. The situation was more of an errant throw by Trubisky, but Harris showed awareness and came down with the ball.
Unfortunately, Harris’ outing wasn’t enough for the Vikings to sneak out a win, and they fell 25-20 to their division rivals.
“Winning is the number one priority,” Harris told media members following the road loss.
95 total tackles (team stats) with 10 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions and eight passes defended
43 total tackles (team stats) with two quarterback hurries, three interceptions and six passes defended
28 total tackles (team stats) with three passes defended
20 total tackles with three tackles for loss, one-half sack, two quarterback hurries and two passes defended
11 total tackles
Smith had a trio of interceptions this season, two short of his career-high of five, but one was followed by an exciting return.
Against the Jets in Week 7, the Vikings led by 10 midway through the third quarter, but Darnold looked to lead New York down the field. On the first play of the series, however, Darnold threw deep to Robby Anderson. The receiver was well-covered by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who got a hand on the football but couldn’t secure the pick. Smith was ready, coming from behind and catching the ball in stride before returning it 52 yards and deep into Jets territory.
Smith’s takeaway helped keep momentum with Minnesota, and the Vikings were able to extend their lead with a 22-yard field goal four plays after the pick.
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The underdog Vikings needed a win against Tom Brady and the Patriots, but they came up flat.
Minnesota couldn’t get it going on either side of the ball, but allowing New England points on two of their first three possessions swung momentum toward the perennial AFC East champ. The Patriots scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game, stringing together five consecutive plays of at least 13 yards.
The longest play of the drive was a 24-yard gain by former Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who finally was brought down by Harris. The Patriots second touchdown of the day came late in the third quarter after more chunk plays. Smith brought down Rob Gronkowski and James White on consecutive plays but after gains of 15 and 12, respectively, that put the Patriots deep in Minnesota territory.
The Vikings inability to stop the run – the Patriots rushed for 160 yards – allowed Brady more freedom in the passing game, and he led New England to a 24-10 win.
“It kind of really doesn’t change anything that we’ve done over the past few weeks. For me, it will be the same preparation and prepare like I’m going to be in there. As a team, we know guys are going to embrace new roles. A couple guys coming up to the active roster are going to be asked to contribute anyway they can. We’re just going to continue to move forward and prepare from this game and go from there.”
— Harris when asked about starting at New England
“Honestly, we didn’t play our best football all year, so the chips fall wherever they fall. We can’t do anything about it now. We’ve got a good group of guys that’s going to be in here this offseason, and we’re just going to work our tails off and start from OTAs on out.”
— Kearse after the Vikings Week 17 loss to the Bears