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'Harry the Hitman' not 'Smith the Salesman'

The play at a high level by Harrison Smith isn't a secret to Vikings fans familiar with the only player in the NFL with 11 interceptions and 5.0 sacks since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2012.

Smith, however, hasn't received as much national attention — yet — as some other safeties, writes Tom Pelissero of USA TODAY Sports. Pelissero's profile of the fourth-year pro this week gives insight to why he is known as "Harry the Hitman" instead of "Smith the Salesman."

Pelissero writes:

*Harrison Smith needs to come up with a catchy name for the Minnesota Vikings secondary or perhaps grow out his facial hair until it has a social media following. *

*Smith's commitment to authenticity just isn't cutting it for one of the NFL's best and most overlooked safeties, and his stats don't begin to explain how he impacts a Vikings defense that has led the charge to a first-place tie with the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North. *

"A lot of people have a shtick, and that's what sells, and that's what people like," Smith told USA TODAY Sports. "I don't want to say never, but I don't see myself doing stuff like that. It's not me. It would make me uncomfortable. The psychological part — that would affect me."

*So the Seattle Seahawks can have Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in their Legion of Boom, and San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle can continue sporting his famous beard, and Tyrann Mathieu can revive his Honey Badger persona with the Arizona Cardinals. *

*At a position that often functions off the TV screen, the off-field stuff sticks with fans who make up one-third of the Pro Bowl voting panel. It may even impact some of the 50 national media members who vote for All-Pro honors, too. *

*

*"The thing (Smith) does is he makes a lot of plays," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer told Pelissero. "As an overall safety and running game and coverage and blitzing and understanding concepts and taking away guys we're trying to take away — those are things I look at. Not how many interceptions did he get and how many splash plays did he make, but how solid is he every day?"

Schedule toughens based on win percentages

With the Vikings set to depart Friday for Oakland, a day earlier than normal road trips, Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune writes "there is no question the team is entering the hardest part of their schedule to date. In fact, NFLTradeRumors.com has a list of the remaining strength of schedule of every NFL team, and the Vikings have the hardest remaining schedule in the league."* *

Sunday's game will pit a Raiders squad that's scored 35.3 points per outing in its past three games against a Vikings defense that is the only one to keep all opponents to 23 points or less.

After Oakland, the Vikings will face the Packers at home, go to Atlanta, face Seattle at home, go to Arizona, face Chicago and the New York Giants at home and end the regular season at Green Bay. The teams in those last seven games have a combined record of 36-22 this season, with only the Bears (3-5) being under .500.

Leaps and bounds on third downs

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There are multiple factors the Vikings have gone from 3-5 through their first eight games of 2014 to 6-2 this season, but a key factor is improvements** made on third-down defense, writes Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com:

*Of the leaps the Vikings' defense has made in the second season under Zimmer, the play on third downs is perhaps the most impressive. Zimmer has touted his players' intelligence for being able to grasp complex pressures, coverages and disguises, helping the Vikings vault to second in the NFL by allowing just a 30 percent conversion rate on third downs, including a stellar 19-percent allowance over the last five games that would make even Bud Grant blush. *

"We try to mix it up and we try to give them different looks," Zimmer said. "We try to pressure some, we try to play coverage some."

Third-down success and a 6-2 record are no coincidence as the Vikings have leaned on a strong defense to grind out close wins. The last time they were as successful getting off the field was 2009, when the Vikings made the NFC Championship with the third-best defense on third downs. They've ranked 26th, 30th, 27th, 30th and 20th in the five years since.

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