Tale of two Vikings first-rounders

Matt Kalil (Brace Hemmelgarn/US Presswire)

Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith should both be staples in the starting lineup for years to come. While Smith has struggled occasionally in the last month, Kalil has been consistently impressive and a bit surprising in the run game.

Vikings coaches took the bye week to perform a self-scouting of their game-day operations, looking for areas of predictability but also gaining a greater sense of players' abilities.

The opportunity to take a step back from the weekly grind of preparing for the next opponent likely allowed them to draw some conclusions on what they can do better and what individual players can improve.

If they were judging the latest game, a 34-24 win over the Detroit Lions, they likely came away with different assessments of their two first-round draft picks. Left tackle Matt Kalil appears to be playing as well as ever while safety Harrison Smith didn't have his strongest performance.

Smith was the victim on the Lions' first touchdown of the game, with 2:55 left in the third quarter. He came up to press tight end Brandon Pettigrew at the line of scrimmage and appeared to stumble slightly as Pettigrew slipped past him for a 16-yard touchdown on second-and-15.

"I just got beat, really. I came down and probably tried to be a little too physical with him on the line so he got a little step on me," Smith said. "It was just a little technique thing."

Smith could also find himself with a fine for a hit to the helmet of Detroit's Calvin Johnson, who had a career-high 12 catches for 207 yards, much of that coming down the deep middle of the field.

Smith also missed a tackle on the Lions' longest run of the game, a 14-yard gain by Mikel Leshoure in the fourth quarter.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier admitted that Smith has had issues with his tackling lately, but he said Monday that the first-round pick was better against the Lions.

"He had a couple games there where he missed some tackles; he was much better (Sunday). We need him to continue to grow in that area," Frazier said. "He's going to find himself in a lot of situations where he has to make open-field tackles for us. He's done it very well on occasion. There were a couple games where he kind of slipped a little bit. (Against the Lions) he was very good."

One rookie that was very good against Detroit and has been of late is Kalil.

Kalil was solid as usual in pass protection, as his athleticism continues to even impress teammates. But Sunday he was nearly as good in the run game, too.

"He's grown leaps and bounds. That's been one of the most impressive parts about him," Frazier said. "We all knew that he was going to be an excellent pass protector based on what we saw in college and we felt like he would develop into a great run blocker as well. But he has improved every week in that area and he continues to get better."

Kalil was key in three of the Vikings' explosive runs against Detroit. On Adrian Peterson's 19-yard, fourth-quarter gain, Kalil kicked his assignment out and Peterson exploited the hole between him and Rhett Ellison and Michael Jenkins, who dropped inside to seal the edge. Two plays later, the Vikings extended their lead to 31-17 with a 61-yard run by Peterson.

On the next drive, Peterson found a big cutback lane to his left when Kalil and Charlie Johnson opened a path for their star running back despite Detroit stacking nine defenders in the box to stop the run on that play.

"Some of the things he did down the field (against the Lions) were as impressive as what he did on the line of scrimmage," Frazier said of Kalil. "That's a pretty good front that they have, pretty good defensive ends and he held his own in our first game against them and he did a very good job (Sunday) as well. You expect him just to continue to get better and better as he gains more confidence. But he's been very, very impressive."

Kalil and Smith have both started every game for the Vikings this year and, per usual, both played 100 percent of the snaps on offense and defense, respectively. Despite Smith's occasional struggles against the Lions, it's clear he has been one of the reasons for the Vikings' improved secondary and there is little question he helps bring a physical attitude to the defensive backfield.

General manager Rick Spielman says he still reserves judgment on draft picks for three years, but 10 games into their rookie seasons it appears that Kalil will provide a cornerstone on the offensive line and Smith an attitude on defense.

NOTES

  • Despite a strong performance from nose tackle Fred Evans filling in for the injured Letroy Guion (turf toe), Frazier said Guion will return to a starting role when he is healthy enough. His return is expected to be for the Nov. 25 game at Chicago. "Fred did a good job for us. Letroy's our starter," Frazier said. "We've had some good games with Letroy in there. He's played well for us throughout the season. He got a little banged up. But once he's healthy, he'll be our starter."

  • Safety Mistral Raymond could be worked back into the starting lineup, too. Raymond missed six games after suffering a partially dislocated ankle Sept. 23 but in his first action Sunday, he was rotated into the lineup for 40 percent of the defensive snaps. "We definitely want to bring Mistral along, and the fact that he was able to get some time (Sunday) where he can get a little more confident about where he is with his foot and his ankle and also for us to see him on tape, that was a good sign," Frazier said. "Now he'll have a full almost two weeks to really rest and heal and really reflect back on what he did (against the Lions). He'll be in line for more playing time; it's just a matter if we decide to put him back in the starting rotation."


    Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.


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