The Vikings were in full control of the Texans on Sunday with a 17-3 lead with under two minutes until halftime. Then, they lost their most experienced defender in Harrison Smith to a questionable ejection that balanced the playing field.
Smith pursued Texans tight end Jordan Akins who caught a pass over the middle and braced for a hit. Smith had left his feet and was on a crash-course for Akins as the two collided helmet-to-helmet. Smith was called for helmet-to-helmet contact and was ejected, while Akins left the game with a concussion.
The call left Zimmer livid and his face shield foggy as his defense would be without the centerpiece to its secondary for the remainder of the game.
The Texans were awarded a first down after the call but did not advance the ball further, leading to kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn converting a field goal to the Texans momentum heading into halftime.
Had the Vikings not picked up their first win, Zimmer’s temper would have likely rolled into his postgame press conference. But instead, the Vikings coach had a much gentler tone as his team picked up their first win of the season.
“I love Harrison Smith like he’s my son… QBs can throw over the middle of the field with no repercussions whatsoever,” Zimmer said. “I thought Harrison tried to lead with his shoulder. If you want to give him a penalty, give him a penalty, but don’t eject him. He’s not a dirty player.”
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Vikings Had to Replace Smith on the Fly
Veteran safety George Iloka, who hadn’t played a defensive snap since 2018 and was signed to the roster after Week 1, replaced Smith at safety despite preparing all week to backup nickel cornerback Jeff Gladney.
Iloka proved to be a liability as the Texans keyed on him for a fourth-quarter touchdown to Kenny Stills that brought the Texans within a possession. He redeemed himself by tackling running back David Johnson who fumbled a pitch inside the 10-yard line on the Texans’ final possession, setting up the Texans fourth-down pass attempt to Will Fuller V that was ruled incomplete.
Zimmer said after the game that he had to approach Iloka on the sideline to replace Smith on the fly.
“I did see a couple (mistakes) there,” Zimmer said of Iloka’s play. “He was preparing most of the week at nickel and so I had to actually ask him on the sidelines if he knows what he’s doing at safety.”
Smith Could Face Suspension
Escaping Houston with a win was a plus for the Vikings, but it may have come at a cost as Smith could be suspended for the hit.
Andrew Sendejo was suspended for a game in 2017 for a hit that gave Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace a concussion. Sendejo tried to appeal his suspension, a measure Smith will likely take, but Sendejo’s appeal was overruled by the NFL.
Zimmer revealed that league office in New York ejected Smith, who was ejected for the first time since his rookie year in 2012, defining the hit as “flagrant.” The same classification was given to Sendejo in the letter containing that his suspension was upheld.
Smith’s absence could be a major detriment if he is suspended for next week’s game against the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football.
Trevor Squire is a Heavy contributor covering the Minnesota Vikings and journalism graduate from the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities. Connect with him on Twitter @trevordsquire and join our Vikings community at Heavy on Vikings on Facebook.