The Vikings had Harrison Smith's back.
Smith was ejected from Sunday's game after a hit on Texans tight end Jordan Akins late in the second quarter. Officials flagged Smith for targeting a defenseless player and opted to disqualify him from the rest of the contest. Ejection is not an automatic consequence for the penalty.
Cameras during the broadcast showed Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer reacting emotionally to the call on the sideline.
Zimmer was asked about the penalty following Minnesota's 31-23 defeat of Houston.
Akins was diagnosed with a concussion on the play and did not return, but Zimmer said there was no intent to harm by Smith on the quick play in the middle of the field.
"I love Harrison Smith like he's my son, first of all," Zimmer said. "My issue is always, the quarterbacks can throw the ball into the middle of the field, and there's no repercussions whatsoever. Harrison is not a dirty player, he's never been a dirty player. I feel like he tried to get his shoulder in there.
"They told me that the league office ejected him. They want to give us a penalty, fine, give us a penalty. But don't eject guys," Zimmer added. "This guy's one of the best players in the NFL and one of the best people in the NFL. He's not a dirty player, so that's kind of what irritated me, I guess."
Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press tweeted a pool report by the Houston Chronicle's John McClain:
The removal of Smith made it tougher on a short-handed Vikings secondary but also intensified his teammates' desire to get the win.
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook racked up 130 yards on the day, 70 of which came in the second half. He called Smith, whom this season was named a team captain for the first time, an "emotional leader" for the team.
"He really doesn't talk a lot; he just shows by example. … You've got to go out there and fight for a guy like that," Cook said. "As soon as he walked off the field, we told him we were bringing this back for him. Then when we went into the locker room at halftime, I told him specifically, personally, 'We're bringing this back in the locker room for you; we're bringing a W back.' "
Vikings safety Anthony Harris acknowledged how difficult it is to lose a player of Smith's caliber but echoed Cook's sentiments on the team's goal.
Harris emphasized that there wasn't much time to worry about whether or not the ejection should have happened but rather how to respond on the field.
"The play happened so quick. You try to get a glimpse of what you can see on the instant replay and try to take a look from there," Harris said. "But once you get the notification that he's going in the locker room, it quickly switches from, 'What happened on that play?' to 'Who's coming in, and how can we quickly adjust to the new personnel?' "
Asked to step in for Smith was Vikings safety George Iloka, who signed for a second stint with Minnesota on Sept. 17 and was brought up from the practice squad to the active roster on Saturday.
Zimmer also noted that Iloka had been practicing all week as the backup nickel corner.
"I had to actually ask him on the sideline if he knows what he's doing at safety," said Zimmer, who also coached Iloka in Cincinnati from 2012-13.
View game action images as the Minnesota Vikings take on the Houston Texans in Week 4.
There were ups and downs for Iloka during the game, but he played a significant role in the Vikings final goal-line stand that enabled Minnesota to hang onto its lead despite a Houston rally.
"I think George did a good job of trying to come in and be that [Swiss Army] knife," Harris said. "You prepare all week to go in and play nickel, getting a lot of reps there, and then you're forced to come in and play a whole [different] position. But he's been working hard, trying to pick up as much as he can and be as versatile as he can. And he was able to come in and make some plays for us and allow us to play as a unit, good enough to come out with a win."
The Vikings were able to reunite with Smith in the locker room postgame after delivering on Cook's promise.
"It wasn't as perfect at the end, but we brought it back, and that's all it's about in the NFL. Just winning football games," Cook said. "Today we accomplished our first win. I know he was proud in that locker room to hear we got that win."