EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings thrilling come-from-behind win had to start somewhere Sunday afternoon.
It began with a first, as rookie tight end Irv Smith, Jr., hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins. The catch marked the 2019 second-round pick’s first NFL score.
The touchdown got Minnesota on the board, and helped lead to the eventual 27-23 win over Denver.
“It felt amazing. It was a long time coming. This team has so much fight and so much heart,” Smith, Jr., said. “It was a special victory. We showed the world what we are capable of doing.
“You want the first touchdown to come in a big game,” Smith, Jr., added. “I feel like I made my mark with that.”
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Monday had praise for how the rookie performed Sunday with three catches for 20 yards.
“He made a good read on the touchdown catch,” Zimmer said of Smith, Jr., who slithered past the cornerback in the back of the end zone. “Every day, I see him getting better … running better routes, [knowing] where to line up.
“It’s probably part of him becoming more reliable,” Zimmer added.
The Vikings have turned to Smith, Jr., at times this season. He now has 27 catches for 261 yards and a score.
But they have relied on him more of late, as the tight end has multiple catches in each of Minnesota’s past six games. By contrast, Smith, Jr., had multiple receptions just once in the Vikings first five games.
Smith, Jr., told the Twin Cities media on a conference call Monday that he feels his role in Minnesota’s offense growing by the week. He also credited Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and Vikings tight ends coach Brian Pariani for helping bring him along through the offseason program.
“It definitely brings more confidence. It sucked with Adam going down … but I just wanted to step up as much as I can and be a contributor, either in the run game or the pass game,” Smith, Jr., said. “I try to be a young leader on this team, so anything I can do to help this team get victories and be successful on offense, I try to do it.
“I feel like each game, it’s definitely a step [forward] for me. As a rookie coming in, I had a lot on my plate at first, just trying to come in and learn the offense,” Smith, Jr., added. “But Coach Stefanski and Coach Pariani did an amazing job of getting me ready. Each week I just try to come with the mindset that I can’t be stopped, and this offense can’t be stopped. I try to have that mindset each day. And each game is more experience for me under my belt.”
When the Vikings drafted the Alabama product, they raved about his versatility and ability to line up anywhere on the field. Smith, Jr., has shown those traits — plus an ability to block — in making his initial impact on the Vikings.
“He’s a guy we can use sometimes as a receiver, sometimes as a tight end,” Zimmer said. “You’re not sure if you’re going to get nickel or the base defense when him and Kyle [Rudolph] are in there together.
“We can exploit those two areas by either running against little guys, or throwing against big guys,” Zimmer added. “I think having a weapon like him is really good.”
Smith, Jr., entered the NFL with plenty of pedigree. His father was a first-round pick of the Saints in 1993. The elder Smith had 183 catches for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns in a seven-year career.
But the rookie also came from Alabama, which is known as one of the most elite collegiate programs in the country.
Smith, Jr., said Monday that he doesn’t feel he has hit a rookie wall yet through 11 games. In fact, the rookie said he’s happy Minnesota’s bye week is on the horizon so he can rest up and get ready for the push for the playoffs.
“I feel amazing, honestly. I’ve really been trying to take care of my body as much as I can,” Smith, Jr., said. “I do Pilates twice a week, acupuncture and [get a] massage twice a week.
“I feel like college is a little more demanding on your body. The NFL is top-notch, but I feel like Alabama definitely prepared me for this,” Smith, Jr., added. “Obviously, Alabama isn’t the NFL, but I feel like it’s the closest thing to it. I’m just trying to stay healthy and do what I can.”