By: Craig Peters
Left foot, right foot, slide and release the ball, follow-through, fist pump.
Harrison Smith bowled a strike, "knocking down" teammates who gathered in the end zone and stood as bowling pins.
Jordan Hicks — the number 58 pin, if you will — wobbled for dramatic effect as Smith gave his first-year teammate an extra look before Hicks toppled.
The Hitman had struck again, nabbing his 33rd career interception and fourth of 2022.
"I kind of forgot what we had going there, and Za'Darius [Smith] made an executive decision, 'Bowling, bowling, bowling!' Smith said of the coordinated celebration after the game.
" 'All right, I got you.' I don't know how many pins we had," the Hitman allowed himself a quick laugh. "We had like 20 pins out there."
Upon review, there were 16 pins including Hicks, who explained, "You've got to make it suspenseful."
For the first time in his career, Smith had recorded an interception in three consecutive games.
More important than completing the interception turkey, the turnover and 35-yard return to the Washington 12 positioned the Vikings to tie the game at 17 two plays later in an eventual 20-17 victory that is one of three so far this season to feature a double-digit comeback by Minnesota in the fourth quarter.
Often playing the role of a bowling ball, but occasionally a pin — "I get smoked all the time. If you're out there, you're going to get smoked." — during plays, Smith's frame-by-frame approach game-by-game has stacked results for 11 seasons.
"I don't know exactly when I learned to emphasize [consistency], but that to me is something that, I don't know if it's the hardest thing to do, but it's something you don't see a ton of guys do, just the consistency week in and week out," Smith said. "If you have a down game or you're kind of quiet a couple of weeks in a row, you start feeling pressure to chase things and try to be somebody you're not or make plays you're not really supposed to, and then you kind of lose track of everything, and then that hurts the other 10 guys out there and the whole team.
"So just being cognizant of that and kind of policing yourself," he added. "I tend to police myself sometimes a little too much where I'm a little too negative, because you still want to be positive, but at the same time, you want to be realistic about yourself and where you fit on the defense."
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He enters Sunday's game with 1,046 tackles, needing 11 more to top Tommy Hannon for the most by a Vikings defensive back all-time (team stats). Smith also has moved into fifth among the team's interceptions leaders.
Some teammates have seen Smith carry out his business for years. Others knew the moment they joined the team that they wanted to learn from him. That goes for a veteran like nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan to second-year safety Camryn Bynum, who played cornerback at Cal but has transitioned to safety in the NFL.
"I think you hit it right there. He's just consistent," Sullivan said. "I sit next to him in meetings, so I get to see how he prepares for games. I get to see how he takes care of his body in treatment and the weight room. To learn from Hall of Fame guys like that, it's definitely a lesson. Him and [Patrick Peterson], I'm fortunate just to be in the same room with them."
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Bynum studied under Smith and Xavier Woods last season and joined Smith in the starting lineup this season. Bynum continues to study the game and soak up information from Smith.
"He's always obviously who he is. He never switches up his personality," Bynum said. "He's just a natural leader, as far as 'by example,' so I'm sure somebody of his caliber, a future Hall of Famer knows people are watching him and he's open for questions, so I know when I first got here in my rookie year I had just become a safety from playing corner, so I told him, 'I'm going to ask you a thousand questions and hope you don't mind.' He was like, 'Ask away. I'm here to help you.'
"I've learned so much with him, and just playing next to him pushes me because I know this is a Hall of Famer next to me, so I've got to be on my stuff and try to compete with him to be — I want to be where he's at one day. So Year 1 and 2, I'm just glad I've been able to play with somebody that smart and good at football."
Smith remains appreciative of how Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond took him under their wings and said he also learned a lot about special teams from Andrew Sendejo. Smith remains close to those former teammates, welcoming them back and hosting them at his Minnesota home.
"[Sendejo and I] kind of grew together as safeties, but the effort that those guys, especially Jamarca and Mistral, trying to help me along as a young player was pretty cool, so I'll always be indebted to those guys for that," Smith said.
The investment by others, combined with the retention of knowledge and Smith's athleticism and determination help position Smith to make plays and execute at pivotal moments.
Beyond the tackles, including 16.5 sacks (a record among Vikings DBs), and a franchise-best four interceptions returned for touchdowns, Smith has forced nine fumbles and has been credited with 80 passes defended (league stats).
One in Week 5 broke up what would have been a go-ahead, 25-yard touchdown pass to Chicago's Darnell Mooney in the third quarter.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the craziness that unfolded in the final minutes of regulation and overtime at Buffalo, Smith was able to deny a pass intended for former teammate Stefon Diggs. Smith closed on the throw that would have gained about 24 on third-and-15. The breakup forced a punt and gave Minnesota time to drive the field, miss out on a short touchdown and recover the fumbled snap for a score.
"Both of those scenarios were where I felt like I didn't have a great chance to get my eyes back to see the ball, so some of it, there's a degree of luck with the timing and everything, but you can see guys' eyes get bigger as the ball approaches," Smith said. "That's kind of my trigger to engage a little more. As long as it's close, it's normally not going to be [pass interference]. But those eyes, if you can actually see them in the moment, they tell you."
Bynum said Smith's calmness at catchpoints stands out and joins his intensity as a tackler.
"It's always a mental battle for him and you see that, just with the poise he has on the field and how he plays it so slow but makes plays and finds the ball always," Bynum said. "His knack for the ball is insane, not to mention his hitting. He got the name Hitman for a reason, but he doesn't have to do that to make a mark on the field. He's a clean player and makes the plays that need to be made."
Both breakups are shining examples of winning plays and being at one's best when it's required — hallmarks continuously emphasized by former NFL quarterback and first-year Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, 37. O'Connell's playing career, which included time with the Jets, was winding down in the summer of 2012 just as Smith, now 33, was in his first NFL preseason.
Smith has helped the Vikings defeat the Jets both times he's faced them. He recorded eight tackles and a sack in 2014 when Minnesota won 30-24 in overtime at the University of Minnesota on an 87-yard touchdown from Teddy Bridgewater to Jarius Wright.
In 2018 at New York, Smith returned an interception of Sam Darnold 52 yards and totaled two passes defended in a 37-17 victory, the Vikings first win in six tries when visiting the Jets.
The interception return was his fourth of more than 50 yards, topping a Vikings record set by Charlie West with three such returns from 1968-73.
Smith has recorded 14 more interceptions since the teams last met in 2018. He's become a husband and father off the field since then and played in 68 more regular-season games.
Asked if there was any advice he'd give to the younger version of himself from the last time he played the Jets, he said, "The only real advice I'd give is to enjoy where you're at on a daily basis."
"Sometimes you get caught up in having to get things done or preparing for the next opponent, or even on game day, the nerves of it, the stress of it, no matter what type of game it is," Smith said. "Sometimes if you just embrace it, I don't know if it makes it easier, but it makes it, I tend to function better when I'm just enjoying where I'm at and appreciate the help I've gotten along the way and stuff like that instead of always being stressed out about performing at the highest levels. Just go play."
The Vikings enter Sunday's game with a record of 9-2 and a strong chance of making their fifth postseason trip in Smith's 11 seasons.
"It's tough to always have really good years. This is a year that we need to take advantage of," Smith said. "You get somebody like K.O. coming in and building a really tight team and positive culture that guys feed off of. It's a lot of fun to be around. I'm glad that I'm still a part of that and able to experience this season with the players and coaches and enjoy what we've got going on."