MINNEAPOLIS -- Irv Smith Jr. picked a good time to score his first NFL touchdown.
With the Vikings facing a 20-point deficit Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17, at U.S. Bank Stadium, the rookie tight end ran a precise route and quarterback Kirk Cousins found him in the end zone for a touchdown to get the ball rolling.
“That first touchdown, I wanted to get it in a big game or something where it really mattered,” Smith said Monday. “I felt like I left my mark with that.”
Indeed, his touchdown helped the Vikings rally for a dramatic 27-23 win over the Denver Broncos.
That third-quarter score was another step forward for Smith, who continues to find his way in the Vikings’ offense. He has 22 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown over the past six weeks and has impressed coach Mike Zimmer with his versatility.
“He’s a guy that we can use sometimes as a receiver and sometimes as a tight end,” Zimmer said. “We can exploit those two areas by either running against little guys or throwing against big guys. I think having a weapon like that has been really good.”
“He made a good read on the touchdown catch,” Zimmer added. “Every day I’ve seen him getting better. He’s coming up and running better routes. It’s just part of the process of becoming more reliable.”
Becoming reliable contributor was the goal for Smith, 21, after being selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He has talked constantly about how he wants to help in any way he can and is finally getting a chance.
“I feel like each game is definitely a moving step for me,” Smith said. “As a rookie coming in, I had a lot on my plate at first trying to come in and learn the offense. Coach (Kevin) Stefanski and Coach (Brian) Pariani did an amazing job getting me ready.”
As veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has helped Smith develop while also re-emerging as an offensive threat himself. That one-two punch could make the Vikings a matchup nightmare down the stretch.
“I just want to step up as a much as I can and be a contributor either in the run game or the pass game,” Smith said. “Just come with the mindset that I can’t be stopped and this offense can’t be stopped.”
With wide receiver Adam Thielen nursing a hamstring injury, fellow wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been getting a lot more targets. To say he’s made the most of them would be an understatement. Since Thielen went down during the first half of a 42-30 victory Oct. 20 at Detroit, Diggs has hauled in 23 catches for 459 yards.
Against the Broncos, he had five catches for 121 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s getting a lot of attention from the other teams,” Zimmer said. “He’s playing good. He ran by the guy the other night. He’s playing really good. He’s playing competitive and catching the ball well and running good routes.”
Flipping the switch
If the Vikings learned anything during their comeback win over the Broncos, it’s that they’re capable of flipping the switch at a moment’s notice.
Not that Zimmer ever wants to see his team do that again. He’d be happy if he never again saw the team that dug themselves a 20-point deficit.
“If we wait to flip the switch, we’re not going to win many of those games,” Zimmer said. “If we play like we can play, and we use the competitiveness and the fight and the intelligence and the toughness that we mostly played with in the second half, we can win a lot of games.”