Irv Smith didn’t have a stat line that anyone dreams about for their rookie debut. Zero catches on zero targets for zero yards. But a closer analysis of the coaches film from Sunday’s 28-12 win by the Minnesota Vikings over the Atlanta Falcons showed a number of things that bode well for Smith’s 2019 season. Let’s have a look…
The second-round pick from Alabama played a total of 21 blocking snaps according to Pro Football Focus and graded as the eighth best run blocker out of 64 tight ends who played at least eight blocking snaps on opening week. Three particular plays stood out…
The first came on a 22-yard run by Dalvin Cook in the second quarter with Minnesota up by 14 and looking to put the game on ice early. One of the benefits of having an undersized tight end is that he is a threat as a receiver from the slot position. On this play Smith lines up in the slot with Kyle Rudolph at the outside receiver spot.
Smith takes off from the line of scrimmage as if he is going for a vertical route. He sticks his foot in the ground and takes off, then as he approaches the Falcons safety, he sinks his hips and angles his body like a basketball defender forcing a ball handler to go right and then gets both hands on the safety for just long enough for Cook to see the open space and cut toward the sideline.
There is an urgency and determination to the block, even if Smith didn’t latch on and drive his man back.
Smith’s other strong block came at the goal line. He showed that quickness isn’t just an asset in the passing game. On this play he lines up to the quarterback’s right and the Vikings show the look of a zone run to the left with the entire offensive line. Smith comes underneath the formation and acts as the lead blocker for Cook’s cut back.
Smith was helped out by linebacker Deion Jones (No. 45) taking a step to his left and then running smack into tackle Riley Reiff when he turned to chase the running back but the Vikings rookie tight end got to his spot quickly and finished Jones, pushing him back into the end zone as Cook followed for the touchdown.
Again you won’t be confusing Irv Smith for Lee Smith (one of the NFL’s most aggressive blocking tight ends, not the former Cubs closer) but he did the job with the effort required to get the desired result.
Our next play is an example of Smith helping with pass protection on Kirk Cousins’ 23-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen.
In order to give rookie Brian O’Neill some assistance on the edge, Smith is asked to chip rusher Vic Beasley. Smith attacks Beasley’s inside hip and while he didn’t lay a crushing blow to the veteran edge rusher, Beasley’s path to the quarterback was significantly widened by evading Smith’s block. He has no chance at getting around O’Neill at that point and is nowhere near Cousins, who has a solid enough pocket to step up and fire a bullet to Thielen.
Our next play was one of the few routes run by Smith — and it came on a strip sack by the Falcons. Smith is lined up inline on this play to the weak side of the formation. He runs a dig route at approximately 12 yards. The inside linebacker has the flat area in Atlanta’s coverage, so he clears out the middle of the field to follow Cook out of the backfield, leaving Smith one-on-one. He extends his left leg and plants hard in the turf to make a quick break, creating space between him and the safety.
Had Cousins’ read taken him to Smith, the Vikings may have converted on a big gain down the middle on second-and-long.
Our final standout play from Smith was a small detail but one that impacted one of the successful throws from Cousins on Sunday.
During training camp Gary Kubiak and Cousins both talked about the small things needing to be perfected if he was going to be an impact player in Year 1. On Diggs’ 31-yard completion from Cousins, Smith did a solid job of selling a block on a play-action throw. He motioned inline, giving Cousins an idea of what type of coverage he’d be facing (it appears to be cover-3) and when the snap is taken, Smith sinks down into a blocking stance before going out into the flat.
Cousins has pointed out in the past that converting play-action is a full team effort. You see the middle linebacker creep forward anticipating a run and Cousins tossing the ball over his head to Diggs. Certainly Smith wasn’t the only one who successfully faked out the Falcons defense but he seemed to get the details right and play a small role in a big play.
As the season goes along we will find out whether Smith continues to play a high percentage of snaps as he did on Sunday (26 of 53). If he blocks successfully, creates separation on his routes and gets small things right, he may end up being the Vikings go-to option much more than any of the other receivers behind Diggs and Thielen.
But there is a long way to go. He will have a tougher test this week against Green Bay, especially when it comes to helping to block the Packers’ outside rushers.