By: Will Burchfield

Amidst talk that Matthew Stafford has looked like a different quarterback this season – completing a higher percentage of his passes and committing fewer mistakes – Minnesota Vikings’ safety Harrison Smith has seen the same old guy under center for the Lions.

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“I don’t really want to say different, he’s always been a tremendous quarterback. Very talented, you know,” Smith said. “I think he’s making a lot of good plays, a lot of good decisions, getting the ball in the right spot all the time.”

Smith and the Vikings take on Stafford’s Lions this Sunday in a pivotal NFC North clash. Stafford enters the contest with a career-high 67.7 completion percentage through eight games, and an impressive 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

“He’s always had a good feel for the pocket and I think he’s probably underrated in his athleticism,” Smith said. “He can make plays on his feet and buy some more time there and make big time throws, so to me, you know, I wouldn’t say different. I’m not really surprised at how he’s playing. He’s always been, in my opinion, one of the tougher guys to go against.”

To Smith’s point, Stafford’s been more mobile than usual this season. A number of long, open-field scrambles have resulted in Stafford averaging 15.8 rushing yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry, both of which are career highs. He’s on pace to gain 252 yards on the ground, nearly 100 yards more than his previous single-season best.

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Stafford will need to be nimble against the Vikings’ front seven, one of the most dangerous units in the league. No quarterback is more aware of this than he is, of course. The Vikings have sacked Stafford 39 times in 12 career matchups, including seven times in their most recent meeting in Week 7 of 2015.

Smith has a couple theories as to why Minnesota has had so much success in getting to the Lions’ quarterback.

“I think him taking deeper shots down the field and stuff like that, you normally get a little more time to get back there,” he said. “We’ve gotten just as many pressures and hits on other quarterbacks as well, so I don’t know if that’s specifically it.

“I think that is a testament to Stafford’s toughness. You never see him tap out of those games in the past and he’s always standing in there delivering the ball. That’s one thing that’s always impressed us.”

Stafford is 5-7 against the Vikings in his career, with 18 touchdowns, five interceptions and 257 yards per game. Despite absorbing sack after sack, he has maintained a respectable 90.6 passer rating versus his divisional rivals.

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And Smith, for one, respects him for it.