Harrison Smith isn't close to being 'old guy' yet, and he's eager for what's next with Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. -- In a matter of six days last March, nine players from the Minnesota Vikings defense were gone, many of whom safety Harrison Smith had played with for most of his NFL career.

The 2020 season, Smith's ninth in the NFL, was already defined by change six months before the games started. How the Vikings would respond to such a transformation depended heavily on their veteran core.

Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler, had never been a part of a defense with so many rookies stepping into critical roles so early in their careers. Each season there are usually one or two new guys the veterans were tasked with bringing along. This year, "we just call everybody young," Smith said.

When the Vikings hit reset on their once-vaunted defense, there was change every week. The moments that showed signs of growth were met with equally frustrating instances that exposed the Vikings' inexperience. While they held tough in the red zone (ninth in the NFL), they stumbled from fifth in 2019 to 28th in points allowed and 27th in yards. In Week 16, the Vikings (6-9) allowed 52 points in a loss to the New Orleans Saints that knocked them out of playoff contention.

"As a guy who's been on a lot of very good defenses, it's not the Vikings' standard to not be top five, top 10 in pretty much every category," Smith said. "But that's how NFL seasons go sometimes. ... You get some injuries, things like that. But it doesn't matter, that stuff. Whoever is up next has to step up and learn the system, learn the game. We're continually trying to do that."

Smith's leadership was one of the few things that didn't waver. He had to protect the back end of a defense with a new set of starting corners whose jobs were made more difficult by the lack of a pass rush.

This season tested Smith in new ways, and as it draws to a close against the Detroit Lions on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), he has grown into a more resilient player who hopes to be a part of a turnaround in Minnesota well beyond this season.

When Smith hops into his matte black Range Rover at the end of each workday, he finds it difficult to shift away from what he's entrenched in. His outside interests led him back to school to get his MBA and acquire a pilot's license, but shutting his brain off from football mode is a challenge.

"I tend to take my work home with me," Smith said. "You try to move on to the next week, but in my opinion, most of the great players that I've been around take things personally. People say it's just a business, and it is a business, but good players are good because they care, and it bothers them when they don't win or they have a bad game or [miss] a play that could've changed the game."

Smith, 31, says he finds himself still thinking about plays he messed up at Notre Dame, even ones he didn't get right in high school. The four penalties he committed this season, three for lowering his head to initiate contact (one of which resulted in his ejection from a Week 4 game), ate at him because they were costly for a defense that had little margin for error.

As the Vikings stumbled to a 1-5 start, Smith struggled to decompress from his team's struggles.

He wasn't the only one frustrated. Coach Mike Zimmer was exasperated at the way his defense would take a step forward, only to regress. Other players struggled to pinpoint why tackles were missed or leads not held. Against Seattle in Week 5, the Vikings' defense held its own until the final drive, and Smith's competitive fire lead to a GIF-able moment of him telling rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler, in no uncertain terms, to cover his guy.

There's no avoiding the age and experience gap between Smith and his safety counterpart Anthony Harris and young corners like Dantzler (22), Jeff Gladney (24), Harrison Hand (22) and Chris Jones (25). Scheme adjustments reflected that with the Vikings playing the third-most Cover 2 (23.4% of plays) this season, some of which had to do with compensating for their young corners with added safety help.

But reminding the young players about their inexperience is not Smith's style.

"When you're constantly being told you're the young guy, if I was a young guy, that would piss me off after a while," Smith said. "I don't try to talk to them like that, either. I try to talk to them like we're all out here together, rely on one another. That's what being in the secondary is about.

"It's like a pack of wolves, and you have to count on the guy next to you. I try to build up that confidence, build up a level of trust, because the defenses I've been on that are always the best are the ones where you're not alone."

Whether it was sharing tips on how he watches film or picking up tells from an offense, Smith had a meaningful impact on his young teammates.

"One time, I got hit [in a game] and he was like, 'Get up, toughen it up,'" Dantzler said. "I got up, toughened it up and finished the game. He shows tough love now and then. He's not a very vocal person, but when he talks, you know it's real. I just take that approach when Harry talks to me."

Smith remembers observing how veteran Antoine Winfield Sr. played at the end of his career. Smith marveled at the production of Winfield, who retired at age 35 in 2012 after spending nine of his 14 NFL seasons with the Vikings.

If this guy is doing it at that age, Smith thought, I better be doing it too.

"That's something I try to keep in mind, that new guys do look to guys that have done it at a high level," Smith said. "If you're not putting good stuff out there, that affects not only yourself, but it affects them and it affects the whole team. I try to stay conscious of that."

Smith is two months away from his 32nd birthday with one year remaining on his contract. He has been asked how much longer envisions playing. Coming up with an answer is difficult.

He knows the end will come someday, but he's enjoying what he's doing -- even through a tumultuous season. This year was one of the toughest Smith has ever gone through, as the glue that held this once-storied defense together. Once the Vikings transition past this phase, Smith is eager to be a part of what's next.

"I don't want to be the old guy," he said. "I want to be the guy that makes plays. I don't care how old I am. I also know the reality is I am the old guy. But just that mindset of being a guy -- I like to be a guy who plays fast and physical and is laying bodies out. To me, when I think 'old,' I don't think you can do that and be old. Just for me, for my own mindset, I don't think that way. I think more that I have the reps and the experience and whatever I can give these guys without slowing them down."