Sid Hartman
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The most versatile defensive player in the NFL is Vikings safety Harrison Smith, and it shows every week as coach Mike Zimmer positions him all over the field.

Smith has 63 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

Only Smith and fellow safety Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers have recorded at least three sacks and three interceptions this season.

Pro Football Focus had Smith ranked as the 15th-best player in the league heading into this season and he has lived up to that expectation. And after making first-team All-Pro in 2017 and being named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, there is no doubt that the 29-year-old will be a fixture for the Vikings for years to come.

Kyle Rudolph has been teammates with Smith going back to 2009 at Notre Dame. The Vikings tight end said that all he has seen from Smith is improvement.

“He has just gotten better and better every single year. I am fortunate to have practiced against him nine out of the last 10 years,” Rudolph said. “Nobody studies harder than he does and his ability to disguise coverages and move around in the back end pre-snap is still what separates him from a lot of guys in this league.

“After the ball is snapped his ability to play the run, to blitz, to cover, you know there is nothing he can’t do. There is no situation we put him in that doesn’t suit his game.”

Rudolph said that his game has evolved right alongside his college teammate.

“Practicing against him every single day, he definitely makes me a better player,” he said. “It’s easier on Sundays because the guys we go against on Sundays aren’t nearly as good.”

Rudolph earns key award

There’s no question that Rudolph deserves being named the Vikings nominee for the 2018 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. He and his wife, Jordan, made a huge commitment to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital last year.

On the field, the belief was that Rudolph would play a key role in the offense this season because of Kirk Cousins’ fondness for throwing to his tight end and the fact that offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was a big believer in the West Coast offense.

And that has been the case. Rudolph has 46 receptions on 60 targets for 463 yards and two scores. His 76.6 catch percentage is the highest of his career. He’s on pace for 61 receptions for 617 yards, which would both be the second-highest totals of his career.

Rudolph said that he’s always happy to be involved in the offense, but the biggest factor for the Vikings’ success is to have balance.

“It’s good to get some passes thrown my way,” he said. “We’re starting to get things going. When we use everyone on offense, we’re really tough to defend.”

Seattle a challenge

For all the ups and downs of this season, the Vikings control their own destiny. Win their next four games and they make the playoffs.

Rudolph said he knows Monday’s game is critical.

“This is like a playoff game for us,” he said. “It will be a rocking atmosphere, it will be loud. They’re a really good football team. They’re playing really good on a three-game win streak. It’ll be a good test.

“For us the playoffs start this week, but with that being said, everything we’ve done to this point has led to a four-game season. We just have to go out and play well, and why not start playing well in December?”

Grant, Carroll go way back

In Bud Grant’s final stint as Vikings coach in 1985, he hired a Pete Carroll to his staff as defensive backs coach.

Grant recalled what led him to hire the 34-year-old Carroll in the first place.

“You get lots of résumés of coaches that want to be coaches or have experience in coaching,” Grant said. “He wrote a great résumé and alluded to a lot of things that I believed in in coaching.”

Carroll went on to great accomplishments. He is also one of the big what-ifs in Vikings history because he was nearly named the coach in 1992 when Dennis Green got the job.

“I recommended Pete very highly,” Grant said. “At that time the commissioner [Paul Tagliabue] stepped in and said he would like to have more teams consider black coaches. That I think was the tipping point that they hired Dennis Green, who was a great coach here in his own right.

“But I think Pete would have been successful here in this atmosphere.”

Carroll won two national titles at USC. He led the Seahawks to back-to-back NFC championships, winning one Super Bowl and losing another. Grant said those wins, and losses, have made Carroll a great coach.

“He’s got the resiliency to be a good coach,” said Grant, whose relationship with Carroll has made a big impact on the Seahawks. “In order to be a good coach you have to be resilient and not get overcome by losing or overwhelmed by winning. Pete could handle both sides of that.

“He could lose and he could win and therefore he has been a coach for as long as he has, and a great coach.”

JOTTINGS

• The Vikings’ remaining opponents have a .521 winning percentage. The only teams in the NFC playoff hunt who have it tougher are Carolina and Philadelphia.

• Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was asked what he recalls from his Vikings days. “It’s a long ways back, but it really got me my start in the NFL,” he said. “I had a stop off in Buffalo that didn’t amount to much but the Vikes with Bud [Grant] and Burnsy [Jerry Burns] and the guys, it was a great experience, a great five years.”

• Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is posting a career-best 115.5 passer rating. “He is doing a great job for us,” Carroll said. “He’s had a great run, and he’s a fine player and a fine leader on our team.” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wilson will present a unique challenge from other QBs: “He’s very good, he is different. He has a lot of mobility, a lot of creative plays. They have become a run-first offense so they’ll run the ball quite a bit. He throws a great deep ball.”

Harrison Smith on the Vikings defense so far: “We’re doing some good things but we can help determine ballgames a little bit better. Just have to keep tightening things up and running to the ball and hitting and causing havoc.”

• Rochester John Marshall basketball standout Matthew Hurt told Gophers Illustrated that he’s taking official visits to Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina but is still deciding if he will take an official visit to Minnesota.

Karl-Anthony Towns has looked like a different player of late. In the Timberwolves’ 121-104 victory over Charlotte, he had his second career game with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. It stands as only the 20th such game since he entered the NBA.

• It’s interesting to note Wolves forward Robert Covington is No. 1 in the NBA in steals per game at 2.25 while the player he was traded for, Jimmy Butler is second at 2.14.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com