Harrison Smith tries to will the Vikings’ defense toward finishing games

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The Vikings thought they were reloading. Their record suggests they’re rebuilding, especially on defense.

The good news, if there is any, is that the defense has gotten better as the season has progressed. The bad news, and there’s plenty, is that the defense has failed to hold late leads against a pair of elite teams, Tennessee and Seattle.

If the defense had held up its end of the bargain, Minnesota would be 3-2, not 1-4. Safety Harrison Smith, a leader of the defense who finally added a “C” to his jersey this year, recently explained the current state of a unit that not long ago was among the league’s best.

“We are a little bit younger, newer, whatever you want to call it, than we have been in the past,” Smith said Friday, via the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “And we are making a ton of improvement across the board in all phases. But like you say, winning is it. Nobody is waiting around taking those empty wins. It’s a good thing, but at the end of the day, winning. It’s only winning. So I think that mind-set too is important to ingrain in a young guy — that losing is not OK. Getting better is important and that’s the only way you’re going to get to winning. But at the end of the day, no matter how you win, no matter what you do, game day wins, that’s why we’re here.”

The Vikings have their best chance of the season to get a win on Sunday, with the 0-5 Falcons coming to town fresh from a housecleaning. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Julio Jones seems to be healthy — and Xavier Rhodes is no longer there to slow him down. Minnesota will need one of its young corners to step up, or 1-4 could become 1-5 at the bye.

If whoever gets the call to cover Jones can’t get it done, that player will likely hear it from Smith.

“It’s not like people need that tough love, but you need to know how it is and that’s the reality of this profession,” Smith said. “Especially playing defense these days. It’s hard. Accept it as that and rise to the occasion. Because when you win, it makes it that much better.”

A victory would move Minnesota to 2-4 with two weeks to prepare for a shot at redemption against the Packers on November 1, part of a three-game tour of the division (Lions and Bears are up next) that could give Minnesota a chance to pull itself back into the chase for the seventh seed in the NFC playoff field.