MINNEAPOLIS – Harrison Smith opened his seventh NFL season with a bang.
The safety had a defensive hat trick – he recorded a fumble recovery, sack and interception to help the Vikings defeat the 49ers 24-16 Sunday afternoon.
Minnesota got up with a 10-0 lead, but San Francisco scored a field goal and was in position to tie the game late in the second quarter. On second-and-goal at the 1, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo handed off to Alfred Morris, who immediately was met by a wall of Purple.
Andrew Sendejo made initial contact with Morris to stop the running back, and a second hit by nose tackle Linval Joseph caused Morris to lose the football. Smith recovered the ball to return possession to the Vikings offense.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes emphasized the significance of the stop.
"Harrison has always been a playmaker for us, and I'm glad to have him on this team," Rhodes said. "Linval stuffed them up. We have been emphasizing things like that, stopping on goal line, not allowing them to score. That happened today and on that play."
Smith didn't take much credit for himself, but he did give kudos – and birthday wishes – to Sendejo.
"First of all, happy birthday to Sendejo, birthday boy," Smith said of his teammate who turned 31 Sunday. "He's one of those guys who is always going to be fighting. No matter if he gets beat, [if] he doesn't get beat, he is always giving 100 percent, laying his body on the line.
"He's been doing it for years and years," Smith added of Sendejo, who now is the oldest player on Minnesota's roster. "He's one of those guys who I think should get way more respect."
Smith's other pair of plays came in the fourth quarter, when the 49ers were attempting to make the game interesting.
The All-Pro safety got to Garoppolo at a crucial time, taking the quarterback down on third-and-5. The loss of 9 ensured the 49ers were far out of field-goal range and forced them to punt.
Smith's 10th career sack set a franchise record for sacks by a defensive back, surpassing Joey Browner's 9.5.
On San Francisco's final series of the game, the Niners lined up at their own 11 and Garoppolo searched for his target. Facing pressure by Danielle Hunter and Sheldon Richardson, Garoppolo fired toward Trent Taylor, but the pass was read and intercepted by Smith, who returned the pick 14 yards.
"That's Harry. That's my dog," Sendejo said after the game. "I looked over when he got that picked, and I wasn't even surprised. 'Yeah, it makes sense.' "
It was a big day for Smith, who also had two tackles for loss and recorded the 600th tackle of his career (Vikings stats), but the playmaker no longer surprises his teammates – or Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
"We've seen it long enough. The guy is all over the field," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "For whatever reason, the quarterbacks like him. Hopefully he keeps doing that and gives us a good opportunity."
Zimmer added during his postgame press conference with media that "the kid is a great football player."
Smith wasn't the only one who made big plays during big moments.
Rookie cornerback Mike Hughes came in for an injured Trae Waynes and notched a pick six in his NFL debut, and Xavier Rhodes snagged a third interception for the Vikings.
Rhodes picked the pass intended for Dante Pettis on the first play of San Francisco's drive early in the fourth quarter.
"I just read the route, broke on the route, and [Garoppolo] threw the ball," Rhodes said nonchalantly. "I just caught it with one hand."
The Vikings three interceptions marked Garoppolo's first game with three turnovers and helped hand the QB his first loss since becoming the 49ers starting quarterback.
Garoppolo also was sacked three times – by Smith, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Sheldon Richardson, the latter two combining on a takedown.
Hunter seemed to be wherever needed, from sacking the quarterback to chasing down and tackling running back Matt Breida for a loss of 1 early in the game.
"I think we're all like that. He just happened to get the first TFL of the season, that's all," Richardson said with a smile. "We're all like that, but he's definitely an animal – 'Create-a-Player,' that's what we call him. Definitely an animal.
"Relentless pass rush, is stout against the run, so it's everything you want in a young defensive end," Richardson added of Hunter.
Smith used his own nickname for Hunter, calling the 23-year-old a freak.
"You've seen the guy," Smith said. "He can do a lot of things. He's a very disruptive football player. We're really fortunate to have him. I'm fortunate to have him in front of me wreaking havoc."
Talk to the Vikings defenders, and most will tell you that there are plays they'd like to have back from the season opener.
Overall, however, Minnesota's defense made plays when they were most needed and played well in the red zone. The Vikings held the 49ers to 90 rushing yards and allowed just five third-down conversions of 13 attempts.
In four trips inside Minnesota's 20, San Francisco scored a touchdown only once.
"It's good. We've been working on that every day in practice," Rhodes said. "Trying to stop the team once they're in the red zone and not allow them in. Create turnovers or make them kick field goals."
In true Smith form, he told media members after the game that while his performance no doubt contributed to the Vikings win, it's "definitely" not the best game he's had, and he looks forward to the opportunity to make corrections before heading to Green Bay for Week 2.
"There are a lot of plays that I could have played better on," Smith said. "[But] we did enough to win, so that's all that matters. So I'm happy."