The Issue with Harrison Smith’s Tackles

Dec 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

Harrison Smith had a lot of tackles on Monday Night Football.

In fact, the safety led the Vikings with 13, a number that points to either a really good game or a really bad game. On the one hand, accumulating so many tackles suggests that the safety was all over the field. On the other hand, needing Smith to make so many tackles suggests that the players in front of him – the defensive line and linebackers – weren’t making the tackles first (and thus not having the best game).

So, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Smith had a bad game. Rather, it’s more that the players in front of him struggled to corral the Philadelphia ball carriers. As a result, many of the tackles occurred after the player already had a sizable gain.

Unfortunately, Smith had to miss a portion of the game since he needed to be evaluated for a concussion. Kevin O’Connell addressed the status of his star safety and whether he had a concussion following the game:

He did, but looking at the way he checked out, we feel pretty strongly about where’s he’s at. But we’ll go through the phasing, and it’s very important that that gets handled medically through the protocol. It is a short week, so we’ll just kind of have to see where he’s at. He was all over the field tonight and having to make a lot of plays down the field in the run and pass game.

In some ways, the Vikings’ coach is addressing some of the issues we’ve been discussing in this piece. As O’Connell notes, Harrison Smith was making tackles “all over the field.” The issue, quite often, is that a lot of these plays occurred “down the field.”

We saw the impact that can have over a game. It’s far better to hit the ball carrier at (or just beyond) the line of scrimmage. Making the hit 8 yards down the field is a surefire way to ensure the defense struggles.

Coach addressed Smith’s health yesterday:

It’s encouraging to hear that the veteran is feeling “pretty good.” Hopefully, he can get back to 100% soon.

Once Harrison Smith is back, it’ll be crucial that he isn’t needing to make so many tackles. Apparently, the Vikings are the only team in the NFL that is currently averaging less than 6 men in the box. The current average is a mere 5.77 men. Frankly, that’s an astonishing reality. Minnesota fans who have been around for a little while will be able to remember when Adrian Peterson used to run into 8 men in the box with consistency. Minnesota’s defense is doing basically the opposite of that. 7 men in the box has often been considered pretty light, so having an average of less than 6 is wild.

Ed Donatell – without question – knows defensive football far better than I do. That being said, only having somewhere between 5 and 6 players in the box feels unsustainable. It puts too much emphasis on the defensive backs needing to step up for the hit.

A potential solution rests in integrating Troy Dye and/or Brian Asamoah more. Neither have great size for a linebacker, but both move well. Getting the extra LB onto the field may allow the defense to be harder to run against while still having the speed to matchup in the passing game.

Regardless of what Donatell decides, the team can’t expect Smith to have 13 tackles on a game-in, game-out basis. It’s simply too much work for a single safety.