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2023.10Playbook_Story2_Web Cover

By: Lindsey Young

As a rookie, Harrison Smith would often stay late at the Vikings Winter Park practice facility to watch film.

He'd pull up a chair to a small table in the defensive backs room, flip on the computer screen and use the mouse to click through frame by frame, keying in on anything he could to grow his game.

Eleven years later, the location and method have changed, but the attention to detail hasn't.

Smith now has film readily available on his iPad, meaning he's able to – and does – study in the locker room, on the bus to or from games, at the kitchen table of his Twin Cities home or in bed before turning in for the night.

But every now and then, Smith finds himself still sneaking into the DBs room – now at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center – to click through a game the old-fashioned way.

"If I'm feeling nostalgic or something," he said, offering a subtle grin. "And I think it can actually be a little more efficient when you do it that way, because you have a little bit more to work with.

"The use of the iPad or Microsoft Surface has been great for guys having constant access to film," Smith added. "Sometimes we get a little spoiled … but it's a really nice tool for everybody to use."

Harrison vs Saints

Whether it's after a big win, a tough loss or after installing a new play during OTAs, Smith jumps to the tape.

"If I had a bad practice, I always want to go watch the film," he said. "I just want to see, 'Why did I do that?' … You try to be harder on yourself than your coach is going to be. You're just gonna be better. That's just how it is.

"Some of the most fun I've had watching film, though, is on game days – after the game. Especially after a win," he added.

Smith recalled last season's defeat of the Saints in London, after which everyone pulled out their devices to review the game during the Transatlantic flight. Or the much shorter trip from Buffalo to Minneapolis following the Vikings roller-coaster win over the Bills.

Harrison at Bills

For every snap, there are 22 viewpoints to unravel.

"Everybody has their own story throughout the game. That you didn't see. That no one else saw," Smith said. "I remember watching something with Eric Kendricks after we played Green Bay one time, and we were going through the whole game, and he's like, 'Oh – this is the play.'

"He'd just gotten folded up by, like, all these different angles," Smith continued. "He was just getting hit everywhere. I would have never seen that. I didn't see it, and I was right next to him during the game. But hearing him [explain], 'This is what I was seeing. I took this step, and then this guy was on me.'

"It's a little story every time," he added. "The stuff like that, especially when you win? It's just fun to sit around and talk football."

He's earned six Pro Bowl nods and in 2017 was named First-Team All Pro by The Associated Press. Smith is a four-time team captain for Minnesota and has played 174 career games, the most by any Vikings defensive back.

At 34 years old, Smith is among the NFL's elder tier of defenders – and yet his impact on the game hasn't lessened. Against the Panthers in Week 4, he became the first player since at least 1994 to record 14 tackles, 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble in a single game.

Harrison at Panthers  copy

One might think by this point in his career, Smith has learned all he can from film study.

But that simply isn't the case. It's the greats who are never content.

Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones believes the players who truly utilize film study are the ones who see longevity in the league.

"Our bodies don't move like they used to the older we get. So then, what becomes your advantage? The things that were great for you before may not be great for you now, so how do you adjust your game?" Jones said. "And I think Harrison's done a phenomenal job at adjusting his game, becoming more cerebral. He may be a little step slower than what he used to be, but his mind is two steps faster. So it balances out."

Josh Metellus has been watching Smith since the Vikings drafted the elder safety out of Notre Dame in 2012. The 2020 draft pick has gleaned from Smith at every opportunity.

Metellus has noticed what Jones pointed out, that Smith has learned to create advantages.

Harrison and Metellus

"He's a flat-out dog, too, so that helps," Metellus said with a grin. "But a lot of 2-2's game is mental, and he puts himself in positions to make plays. He capitalizes on those. The more he plays, he more he just figures out what's going on and plays faster than anybody else."

Just like he's developed his understanding of different defensive schemes and techniques over the years, Smith also has sharpened his entire approach to watching film based on the calendar.

What time of the year is it? Is it mid-May, when the Vikings are just starting up OTAs? Is it Week 1? Week 10? The final stretch of training camp in the dog days of August?

Once into the season, Smith is studying specific opponents and making mental adjustments accordingly.

There are specific game situations that can be analyzed – red zone, at midfield, 2-minute, third downs, first downs and so on.

Other factors to consider include how much time is on the clock? What's the score? What's the field position? Or the personnel?

"If you're watching another defense, what personnel are they in, and why is the offense running these plays versus that look, versus that coverage?" Smith said.

"The first thing I'm watching is myself, every time. That's just, I feel like if that's not what you're watching at first, then, I don't know – it's just an extension of you. If I'm out there playing, I want to watch myself," he said. "And then from there, I'll rewind it and watch, 'What was the front doing? Can I pick something up from the offense? What was happening on the other side?' "

Harrison at Falcons

Is there one piece of advice he's given to younger players?

Smith's number one rule while watching film of an upcoming opponent is to work through the mental reps. He might be lying on the couch; but in his mind, how does he respond to the play in front of him?

"You should always give yourself a call. You should know your defense well enough that you have a couple reasonable choices that your defensive coordinator might call. When I'm talking to Flo' (Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores), I like to know what [calls he prefers]," Smith said. "I might be way off, but at least I'm thinking about a play that we have. And then, 'OK, the offense lines up in this formation, I'm supposed to be hearing this call, I need to communicate with so-and-so … and then where am I aligned, where are my eyes?'

"With all the views you have, you can mentally get a lot out of that rep. You don't have to be on the field," Smith reiterated. "I'm kind of spoiled in saying that because I have so many reps that it's probably easier for me to do that. But you can get what you want out of it. Having a call, and then having a few calls and saying, 'OK, if we get this, that'll cause us some problems if we're in this coverage. And then if we're in this coverage, not as many. How would I play it? What would I say to my corner or my linebacker?' "

Harrison vs 49ers

It's not enough, Smith said, to identify the team's best pass catcher.

"You can't just say, 'This guy's fast. That receiver's really good. That running back breaks a lot of tackles.' Yeah, they're all like that," Smith laughed. "Every week, they're all like that. So you've gotta try to get more out of it."

Sometimes, an exact look from the tape shows up on game day.

But at its core, football is a game of chess. A battle of wits. Not every play by the opponent can be anticipated, and not every game goes exactly as expected.

"Sometimes you're tired, you got beat on a play earlier so you're thinking about that or thinking, 'They're doing this, so it's different than normal,' but it's not. You're trippin'. You're seeing ghosts," Smith said.

Even if the offense doesn't execute an exact look, though, Smith's countless hours in the "classroom" have provided him a deep understanding of the game that often allows him to make a safe prediction.

"Because I've watched so much and played so much and put myself in a call and thought about my landmarks and my alignment and things like that, you're just in the right spots more. And it gives you the opportunity to make plays," Smith said. "They're not always exactly what you expect, but you have some ideas before the ball is snapped. You don't sell out on them but, 'A couple things could probably happen here,' and then you can just play them a little faster.

"I'd say that is the [majority] of plays I've made from watching film," he added. "Sometimes you just make plays, too. It just happens because you're running to the ball or whatever. You get lucky sometimes. But I'd say the cumulative effect of watching film in a productive manner kind of shows itself – but not all at once."

Harrison at Broncos

Smith generally reviews film solo, but the process still can be interactive.

He often will send a specific clip or game situation to Jones or one of his fellow DBs to get their thoughts.

Jones always welcomes a text from Smith, regardless of the hour.

"He's thinking about the game plan," Jones said. "He's watching the tape with a purpose. He's generating questions that will allow him to play faster. You always like when players send you clips."

Metellus, whom Smith has praised for his football I.Q., takes a similar approach and embraces any opportunity to pick the vet's brain or bounce ideas off one another.

Metellus described in-season early mornings at TCO Performance Center, when he and Smith, or other combinations of defensive players, will start off the day by comparing notes – mental or physical – on various cutups.

Harrison at Panthers

"I'm up at night watching film, putting myself through calls, get a situation where I don't know what you're going to do or how I should play this, so the next day we'll talk about it," Metellus said. "It's constant football chatter, especially with the older guys who have played a lot of football … just trying to figure out how we're going to attack.

"There are multiple instances where we just talk through plays and Harry will say something, he'll remind you or give you a little tidbit [from the tape]," Metellus continued. "It's the little things like that, that happen all game, that help. If you ever see him talking to people on the field, he's probably telling somebody a way to show something or do something to keep the offense on their toes."

Smith might not be part of Minnesota's coaching staff, but sometimes he may as well be.

Jones appreciates the safety's knowledge, quiet leadership and willingness to share what he's learned about maximizing film study with younger teammates.

In DB meetings, Smith is bookended by Metellus and Camryn Bynum, while Theo Jackson positions himself directly in front of Smith.

"The younger guys, they're looking at him as a model of how to do things," Jones said. "Which I'm happy about."

Metellus, who's established himself as one of Minnesota's key defensive players, credits Smith for helping his game grow to a new level. He's learned the importance of breaking down tape by different perspectives and scenarios, as well as going through the mental reps.

"Over the years, Harry being able to use his experience and apply it now has definitely helped me and Cam," Metellus said. "This is a copycat league. When you start to realize that things look the same and things feel the same, you can prepare a little bit faster.

"We're trying to build up that experience so we can keep playing faster and faster," he added. "Because the way Harry plays, he's been in the league 12 years, and for him to still be at this level, it has to be more than just keeping your body fresh. He does a great job, and we just try to feed off that as much as possible."

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