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It’s only a few correct steps to optimal performance. Patient, disciplined and instinctive steps, that is. That’s what NFL safeties practice every day. Backpedal into coverage, let the offensive design paint itself, and then react.

Yet many fail to do this on the gridiron’s highest level, leading to safety being arguably the most volatile position. It’s why there are only a few that can be considered elite and worthy of investing in long-term. One who will soon be both is the Minnesota Vikings’ Harrison Smith, a second-year player who is the new leader and future of the team’s secondary.

The 24-year-old is coming off a stellar rookie year, starting a season’s worth of games and making big plays. He was frequently in the right place at the right time on tape, which is backed by his impressive 106 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and the all-important number, three interceptions. Those numbers rival the league’s best and so does Smith’s talent.

He has unexpected foot speed and great versatility, showing the ability to flip between strong and weak (some call this “free”) safety and play in the box or as a deep defender.  For a defense that relies on interchangeable and fundamentally sound safeties to play from a Cover 1 or Cover 2 shell, he’s an important piece of the puzzle and one that will have to keep making plays like the ones he made last season.

One of his best came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8, when he had 13 total tackles, including one hugely important one late in the first half.

It was the second quarter and the Bucs had the ball on their own 37-yard line on 3rd-and-4. Quarterback Josh Freeman was in a shotgun set with running back Doug Martin lined up to his right. Defensively, the Vikings had a two deep shell that Smith, lined up just inside the 50-yard line, made up one half of.

When the play began, Martin received the handoff from Freeman on a power run play while Smith backpedaled into deep Cover 2 coverage. Because defensive end Jared Allen was standing freely at the line of scrimmage after shedding a block, Martin was forced to sidestep and stretch the run wide and to the sideline. As a consequence, he created a natural alley for Smith — who, at this point, planted his foot in the ground and started coming downhill after seeing Martin get the ball — to pursue him.

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As the play unfolded, Smith displayed great range, covering ground in a hurry while still tracking Martin’s outside run with discipline. He eventually got to Martin, who rose over a Vikings defender upon contact prior to being body slammed into the ground by Smith one yard short of the marker. This aggressiveness and willingness to pull the trigger after reading his keys is very impressive, as head coach Leslie Frazier explains: (via twincities.com)

“From my standpoint (he) wasn’t afraid to take chances, which allowed him to make some plays, and you don’t always see that in rookies,” he said. “They are usually sitting back and letting the game come to them, but he was aggressive, and in turn it helped the rest of the guys in our secondary just feed off some of his play-making ability.”

Frazier mentions that rookies have a tendency to sit back and let plays come to them, but veterans do it, too. It’s what separates the good from the average and bad.

Frazier also goes on to mention later that Smith plays with “controlled reckless abandonment,” which is very difficult for defensive backs to do. Smith is able to play with disciplined aggressiveness each play, be it against the run like against the Bucs or against the pass like against the Houston Texans in Week 16.

There were more than five-and-a-half minutes left in the first quarter and the Texans had the ball just outside the 20-yard line.  Signal-caller Matt Schaub was under center and had two receivers lined up in a stacked Twin set to his right. It was the same side where Smith, lined up directly on the right hash, was standing with his back facing the sideline and his eyes on the quarterback.

When Schaub took the snap and dropped back, both receivers ran vertical routes, with the slot threatening Smith just outside the seam. Smith squared his body and backpedaled while the receiver stemmed his route outside before looping it back toward the middle. Once the receiver ran to the inside, Smith abruptly stopped his backpedal, stuck his foot in the ground, and started to come forward. That made Schaub do a double-take and hold on to the ball a second longer, eventually leading to him hurriedly getting rid of the ball for an incomplete pass.

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Moving forward, the Vikings will need Smith to continue to make big plays like the two above. He doesn’t always need to come up with game-changing turnovers — although it doesn’t hurt to — but he must continue to be in the correct position to at least force quarterbacks to hold the ball longer and running backs to second-guess their next cut.

Smith has the potential to be the league’s best safety because he is rangy, disciplined and instinctive. But before he does that, he’ll need to continue to study film to further improve on his discipline and technique, two aspects of the game that can always be improved upon regardless of a player’s greatness.

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