Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris each started all 16 games for the Vikings in 2020.
The safety duo returned together for the unprecedented season and helped guide an otherwise young and experienced Minnesota secondary.
Smith led the team with five interceptions, tying his previous season high (2014 and 2017) and bringing his career total to 28. Four of the picks occurred in games the Vikings won; his first of the season was against Tennessee, whom Minnesota lost to by just a single point.
The ninth-year safety also led the Vikings in passes defensed with 10, tying his third-highest in a season. Smith's 89 total tackles (league stats) raised more than $53,000 for Big Sisters Big Sisters Twin Cities, which he once again supported through his "Big Tackles with Harrison Smith" PledgeIt campaign.
Smith played 96 percent (1,030) of the Vikings defensive snaps in 2020 and added 80 snaps (18 percent) on special teams.
For the first time since 2014, Smith did not receive a nod to the NFL Pro Bowl, which this year was held virtually.
Harris' 104 tackles ranked third on Minnesota's roster, but he did not record an interception a season after tying for the NFL with six. The safety's stats overall did see a decrease, perhaps in part due to playing with much greener cornerbacks and less pass rush than in previous years.
Harris was the only Vikings defender to play all 1,074 defensive snaps. He also played 99 snaps (22 percent) on special teams.
Behind Smith and Harris, the depth in Minnesota's safeties room drastically dropped off.
By season's end, rookie Josh Metellus was the Vikings only healthy safety (on the active roster) besides the pair of starters. The sixth-round draft pick did play 261 special teams snaps but was never in for a defensive play.
The only other safety to record a stat for Minnesota's defense in 2020 was veteran George Iloka, whom the Vikings re-signed on Sept. 17. Iloka was elevated from practice squad for games against the Titans and Texans in Weeks 3 and 4. On Oct. 10 he was promoted to the active roster, but he landed on Injured Reserve less than two weeks later.
Myles Dorn, whom the Vikings signed as a rookie free agent last spring, also spent the season on Injured Reserve.
Safeties Luther Kirk and Curtis Riley spent the 2020 campaign on Minnesota's practice squad. On Jan. 4, Kirk was signed to the Vikings Reserve/Future list.
19,482.95 — According to Next Gen Stats, Harris led the Vikings with 19,482.95 yards traveled during the 2020 season, which is more than 11 miles. Smith ranked second on the team with 18,401.82 yards traveled, a sign of just how much Harris and Smith played (and of their roles in roaming the secondary).
Anytime the Vikings put plays on a highlight reel at Soldier Field, it qualifies as a memorable moment.
Minnesota historically seems to have a tough time playing on the road in Chicago, but this year's Monday Night Football game between the division rivals went in the Vikings favor.
Smith set the tone early in the evening with a right place, right time situation. On second-and-10 from the Bears 27 and just their second offensive play of the game, Nick Foles' pass to Anthony Miller was tipped and then nabbed by Smith. He bobbled it but kept possession for an 8-yard return.
The takeaway helped swing momentum in Minnesota's favor, and the Vikings went on to win the contest 19-13.
Note: All snap counts are on defense unless noted; tackles are league stats
16 games (16 starts); 1,030 snaps (95.9 percent); 89 tackles (54 solo), 5 interceptions, 0.5 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 8 passes defensed
16 games (16 starts); 1,074 snaps (100 percent); 104 tackles (58 solo), 2 tackles for loss, 7 passes defensed
4 games (0 starts); 45 snaps (4.2 percent); 6 tackles (5 solo), 1 tackle for loss
1. Overtime takeaway
Smith's fourth interception of the season occurred against the Jaguars in Week 13.
A tough-fought battle between Minnesota and Jacksonville resulted in a 24-24 tie at the end of regulation, and the matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium went into overtime. The Vikings won the coin toss and received the kickoff but were forced to punt the ball away.
The Jaguars had a chance to make something happen, but Smith said "not today." On third-and-8 from the Jacksonville 20, Mike Glennon launched a deep pass to DJ Chark, and Smith made a diving interception at the Jaguars 46-yard line. The pick returned possession to the Vikings, who drove down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal.
2. Rack up the tackles
Against the Panthers in Week 12, Minnesota's defense was called upon to offset early and costly mistakes by the offense. The back-and-forth game came down to the wire, and Smith and Harris combined for 17 tackles to help the Vikings walk away with a 28-27 victory.
Harris' 11 tackles on the day were the second-most in his career behind a 15-tackle outing against the Colts in 2018.
1. Overreaction by officials
In Week 4, Smith was ejected in the second quarter after a hit on Texans tight end Jordan Akins. Officials flagged the Vikings safety for targeting a defenseless player and opted to disqualify him for the rest of the contest. Ejection is not an automatic consequence for the penalty.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer spoke to media members following Minnesota's 31-23 defeat of Houston and emphasized that Smith is not a dirty player and had meant no harm on the play.
"They want to give us a penalty, fine, give us a penalty. But don't eject guys," Zimmer said. "This guy's one of the best players in the NFL and one of the best people in the NFL."
2. Not a very merry Christmas
Minnesota's defense had an abysmal performance at New Orleans on Christmas Day.
The Vikings allowed the Saints to rack up 52 points, the most allowed by Minnesota since 1963.
Harris seemed to have a particularly frustrating outing. Although none of New Orleans' touchdowns are specifically credited against Harris, analytics site Pro Football Reference counted three missed tackles against him – more in one game than in any previous season. Entering last year's campaign, Harris had totaled eight missed tackles over five seasons; he added an additional 10 missed tackles during the 2020 season to bring his career total to 18.
"It always starts with having yourself prepared physically from the offseason, learning what you need to address from this year, get that fixed and then as a leader, as a veteran, being a guy who can help those around him jell together more than we did this year. We did some good things. Obviously, there's a lot to improve on but being realistic about those things, evaluating yourself realistically and taking the coaching points from every coach and then collectively getting that together when we get back here."
– Smith on taking responsibility for improving on defense in 2021
"I've been here my entire career. It's been great from everything down to the locker room, to the executives, the coaches, to the city itself and how it's treated me and my family. It definitely holds a special place with me. In terms of what it might take and what that might look like, that's not really in my realm. I'm just a person who tries to enjoy the situation that he's in. Make the best light of it, be the best person I can be, be the best teammate I can be and help everyone around me try to be better people and better players as well."
– Harris on whether he hopes to return to the Vikings for the 2021 season
"Harrison has been awesome, especially around the young guys. He's encouraging, he helps try and teach them, he's not an outspoken guy, but around the players he's a really good leader. On the sideline he's great, he's encouraging. You know, he's helping the young DBs. I think he's a great attribute for us. He wants to win just as much as everybody and he's done a lot of winning in his career. He's really helped be kind of the backbone of the defense."
– Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer
"Obviously, I wasn't a fan of it. I thought I did kind of what I could do while still being an active football player on the defensive side of the ball. To avoid those things, tried to lower the target. Tried to tilt my head out. But that's just kind of how we're seeing things go."
– Smith after being ejected from the Vikings Week 4 game at Houston
Pressing Questions for 2021
1. Will Harris be back with the Vikings for a seventh season?
Since joining the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Harris has played a significant role for the team, from a special-teams ace early on to becoming a full-time starter alongside Smith in 2019. Despite a tough year for Harris this past season, there's no denying the value he adds to Minnesota's defense.
But will the Vikings be able to retain the safety heading into 2021? Harris last year was signed to a one-season franchise tag, meaning if he doesn't re-sign with Minnesota, he'll hit free agency when the new league year opens on March 17.
It's no secret that the Vikings cap situation is tight, and it also remains to be seen how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the league-wide salary cap for 2021. Harris has expressed a desire to say in Minnesota, and it will be interesting to see what transpires this spring.
2. How will Minnesota bolster the safety group?
As stated earlier, the Vikings safety group isn't exactly deep.
Even if Harris does return in 2021, there still are very few options – at least experienced ones – behind him and Smith. The Vikings will likely return the young safeties they had this past season, and it remains to be seen if they will bring back Iloka as a veteran presence in the group.
Will Minnesota add any new safeties through free agency or early on in the NFL Draft? It's certainly worth paying attention to over the next few months.