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Harrison Smith's 1st Sack Sways Game on D.J. Wonnum Return TD; 2nd & 3rd Seal Deal 

They call him The Hitman for a reason.

Harrison Smith's final sack of Bryce Young slammed the door Sunday afternoon, helping Minnesota seal a 21-13 win at Carolina.

With just 1:01 left on the clock, the Panthers were at the Vikings 18-yard line with one more shot on fourth-and-18 at a game-tying comeback.

But Smith said no. The veteran safety exploded off the line of scrimmage on a blitz package and around Carolina tackle Ikem Ekwonu to sack Young from behind.

"He makes it all go," Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said of Smith's impact on the defense and, specifically, of helping the team notch its first victory of the season.

"It's really like, 'If your number's called, make a play,' " a normally stoic Smith said with a smile postgame. "It's kind of what we've been talking about the past few weeks. We've had some opportunities that we really didn't make ... and today when our number was called, we made a play. That's the difference."

It certainly made all the difference.

Smith's takedown of Young was his third of the game and second in less than a minute.

Just two plays earlier, the Panthers had faced second-and-goal from the Minnesota 9 and Smith came around Young's right side completely untouched, sacking the rookie QB for a 9-yard loss.

Carolina's third-down attempt was an incompletion, thanks in part to ample pressure from Vikings outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum – and just like that, the closing scene was set.

Minnesota's defense kept the Vikings in a game they trailed 10-0 early on. And when they needed a spark, the defense delivered.

Self-inflicted wounds struck again when Kirk Cousins was intercepted on the first drive by Carolina's Sam Franklin, Jr., who ran it back 99 yards for a touchdown. Another pick occurred late in the first half when Cousins' arm was hit as he threw.

And though it hurt heading into halftime down 13-7, the Vikings didn't give up.

"They were able to score on their first drive defensively, and we put it on our shoulders to get one in the end zone, as well," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "And then we were able to do it."

The Panthers second drive of the third quarter moved effectively to start advancing them to the Vikings 21-yard line before an ineligble man downfield penalty on Ekwonu wiped away a gain of 13 to the 8-yard line. A tackle for loss by D.J. Wonnum and Danielle Hunter on first-and-15 set up an even longer second down, and Smith got his first sack of the game – dropping Young all the way back at the Minnesota 40.

"I was kind of the free guy, so I just made the tackle – got the ball out on [that one], and D.J. had a nice scoop-and-score," Smith said.

The ball popped loose from Young's grasp, and Wonnum scooped the pigskin and dashed 51 yards for the defensive touchdown.

"Just being able to make that play for my team and be a pivotal part of the game, man, that was awesome," Wonnum said.

Smith thought he felt the ball knock loose but initially couldn't see where it ended up.

"I wasn't sure where the ball was," he said. "I thought it came out, and I was kind of like, 'Where is it?' Once I saw D.J. had it, I was like, 'Oh, we're good. D.J.'s got some juice.' "

Hicks described the immediate aftermath of Wonnum's pick-six.

"Jonathan Bullard was on the sideline yelling, 'I called it! I called it!' " Hicks laughed. "We were talking about it. We were manifesting that, getting in the end zone.

"D.J. can run. It's exciting," Hicks added. "We wanted to get those turnovers, make game-changing plays, and that was one of them. Obviously that kind of got the ball rolling for us."

Minnesota's defense played with a high level of energy all afternoon, despite temps that topped 80 degrees plus a dew point of 50 percent.

"We played dang near everybody to manage those conditions and keep on playing good defense," O'Connell said.

In addition to splashy contributions by Smith and Wonnum, the Vikings also were grateful for Marcus Davenport, who missed games in Weeks 1 and 3 and only played four snaps at Philadelphia because of a foot injury.

Davenport showcased his speed on multiple occasions, finishing the day with a sack, a QB hit, a tackle for loss and four tackles.

Hicks said it was "awesome" to see the 27-year-old truly in action.

"His presence was felt … and we're happy to have him back," Hicks said. "Obviously his presence is necessary out here."

Davenport didn't take too much credit, saying he's set the bar higher for himself moving forward.

"I need to do better. I've gotta get my conditioning down so I can do more," he said. "Really, it's my teammates who helped put me in those positions, and we were able to capitalize on them.

"Being able to go out there and shoot and fire, we're really lucky," he added.

Along with Smith's trio of sacks, the safety led the Vikings with 14 total tackles and added three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.

It was the first time Smith had multiple sacks within a game since 2017 against Green Bay. Smith's 3.0 sacks on the season trails only Robert Griffith (1999) and Mackensie Alexander (2018) with 4.0 by a Vikings defensive back. This marks his fourth season with 3.0-plus, the most with that many in team history.

Hicks finished with 13 tackles, followed by an equally impressive 12 from Camryn Bynum. Wonnum added six tackles and two quarterback hits.

The Vikings limited Young to 25-of-32 passing for 204 yards and no touchdowns. His passer rating was 93.2. Minnesota also played well against the run, holding Carolina to just 83 yards on the ground. The Panthers most effective rusher was Chuba Hubbard, who totaled just 41 yards on 14 carries.

"The way we can tie in the rushing coverage together, try to confuse people – whether they're trying to block it all up or whether they're trying to get everybody out, just keep people off-balance," O'Connell said. "I thought the way we were able to stop the run on some early downs – that's a good team running the football behind a good offensive line – and kind of force some of those passing situations, which allowed us to fall into some premium ops for [Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores] to turn those guys loose a little bit."

Playing loose is just the way Harrison Smith likes things.

"Oh my [gosh]. he was out there going crazy today," Wonnum said of Smith. "He's been making plays his entire career. Being able to play with that guy is an honor."

O'Connell was unsurprised by Smith's performance, saying it's the way he and Flores have envisioned the safety fitting in to Minnesota's scheme.

"I can remember talking to Flo' the first time I ever sat down with him last winter … as we started about the possibilities, that safety group as a whole, it was an exciting conversation that all centered around No. 22 – and getting him around the line of scrimmage, getting him involved in the rush," O'Connell said. "Getting his hands on balls in coverage. Making plays in space, tackling. He's been doing it for his whole career, and it's just good to see him back in positions to make huge plays to impact football games.

"He's someone I lean on constantly, one of my all-time favorites," O'Connell noted. "When we had to have him, he was at his best today – among a lot of other of our defensive performers. It was really exciting."

View postgame celebration photos from the Vikings 21-13 win over the Panthers in Week 4 of the 2023 season.

Smith said he hadn't felt like a difference-maker in the Vikings first three games. But Sunday at Carolina, it was different.

Is this what he envisions for himself?

"Something like this," he said. "It's not always going to be three sacks, but creating pressure in different ways, playing coverage in different ways. It wasn't about always just pressuring [today]. So yeah, I think we did a good job of mixing it up and generating confidence.

"It was really everybody doing their job. it wasn't anything special," Smith added. "It doesn't matter who gets [the stats]. It's just, whoever gets the play, make it. And then we'll move on."

Smith always has been and always will be humble. He's the first to tip his hat to teammates and the last to take credit for a win.

But whatever way you look at it, the Vikings have their first win of the season in large part because of No. 22.

"He makes it all go," O'Connell said. "We're the best possible version of the Minnesota Vikings defensively when Harrison Smith is an impact player. And we're gonna try to continue to put him in positions to do so.

"He is selfless. He'll do whatever we ask him to do," O'Connell added. "But I hope he's OK with that being a lot of positions to go make plays."