The Vikings Need More from Za’Darius Smith

Questions Answered: Za'Darius' Role
Oct 2, 2022; London, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za'Darius Smith (55) celebrate victory at the end of the second half of the NFL International Series game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

When the Minnesota Vikings signed Za’Darius Smith this offseason, the hope was that he along with a healthier Danielle Hunter would create one of the most fearsome pass-rush duos in the entire NFL. The main concern was that they would end up missing more games than they played. That has not been the case as each of them have played all 16 games this season.

However, the Vikings pass rush has not been very effective, especially recently. After recording 9.5 sacks in Minnesota’s first nine games, Smith has now had just half a sack in the past seven games. In that stretch, the Vikings have recorded just 11 total sacks. For reference, the Philadelphia Eagles, who lead the NFL in sacks, have recorded 13 in the past two games.

The Vikings Need More from Za'Darius Smith
Jul 28, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Currently, the Vikings are tied for 18th in the NFL in sacks with the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans. These are two defenses that it’d be preferable not to be compared to, but far too often, that’s where these Vikings have landed this year.

The most frustrating part about Smith’s recent stretch of lowered production is that it has not necessarily come with an emergence from Hunter or one of the other Minnesota pass rushers. In the past six games, Hunter has 4.5 sacks after recording 6.0 sacks in the Vikings first 10 games. This suggests that the Vikes simply haven’t had as much success rushing passers as they did earlier in the season.

Smith was a huge playmaker for Minnesota early in the season and made a big impact on the defense as part of Minnesota’s path to an 8-1 record to begin the season. However, it’s likely not a coincidence that Smith’s lack of production in the past seven weeks has also been during a 4-3 stretch since the Bills game in Week 10.

The Vikings Need More from Za'Darius Smith
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) celebrates sacking Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with teammate linebacker D.J. Wonnum. © Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Moving into the playoffs, it’s crucial that both Hunter and Smith produce at a high level for the Vikings to have success. It won’t come easy, though. Right now, Minnesota’s most likely Wild Card opponent is the New York Giants, who feature one of the best young left tackles in the league with Andrew Thomas. They also have 2022’s seventh overall pick, Evan Neal, on the right side.

On Christmas Eve, Minnesota was able to get to Daniel Jones three times as part of their 27-24 victory in Week 16. Danielle Hunter had 2 sacks in that game while Khyiris Tonga and D.J. Wonnum combined for another. However, none of the sacks came in the fourth quarter as the Giants mounted their comeback.

Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebackers Danielle Hunter (99) and Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

In order to grab another victory against these Giants, Minnesota will undoubtedly need at least as much pressure as last time, especially considering New York also sacked Kirk Cousins four times in that game. Then, if the Vikings are lucky enough to escape that Wild Card game, things don’t get any easier with potential matchups with the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles on the road. These two teams have a couple of the best offensive lines in all of football.

Overall, early in the season, Za’Darius Smith looked like one of the best free agent signings in the league. Now, though, he’s become abnormally quiet for a player that recorded a combined 26 sacks from 2019-2020. The Vikings need him to go back to his usual Pro Bowl self as we head into mid-January.

Josh Frey is a Class of 2020 graduate of The College of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. He also earned minors in History, Human Biology, and Journalism. When he’s not writing about the NFL, Josh enjoys marathon training, playing video games, or rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks. For more of his opinions, check out his Twitter account: @Freyed_Chicken.