Does the addition of Brian Flores keep the Vikings in contention in the NFC?
As training camps get underway, I’ll be doing some features on individual teams throughout the league. Here’s a look at the Minnesota Vikings.
With the NFC appearing to be a two-team race between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, it’s easy to forget the Minnesota Vikings went 13-4 last season and featured one of the best offenses in the league. Minnesota cut ties with running back Dalvin Cook this off-season, but they return their core on offense, including quarterback Kirk Cousins and the league’s best wide receiver in Justin Jefferson. Why no love for the Vikings, then, when assessing the state of the NFC in our FFSN NFC Preview?
The answer to that question lies on the other side of the ball. The Vikings were bad on defense last season. They allowed the second-most total yards in the NFL, the second-most passing yards, and were tied for the third-most points allowed. In Minnesota’s surprising playoff loss to the Giants, the defense surrendered 31 points, 431 yards of total offense, and an average of 6.3 yards per play.
Minnesota was not armed with significant cap space this off-season (thus the release of Cook), nor did they have a stockpile of draft picks. Their options for fixing the defense were limited. Still, they may have taken a big step in that direction by hiring former Miami Dolphins head coach and long-time Patriots assistant Brian Flores as their defensive coordinator. From 2019-2021, Flores did an admirable job rebuilding a woeful Dolphins team, going 24-25 before being fired. That firing prompted Flores to file a discrimination lawsuit against the league, leading some to wonder if it would put an end to his NFL coaching career. But he was hired by Mike Tomlin last season to coach linebackers in Pittsburgh and was a popular candidate this off-season for several jobs, including the head coaching position in Arizona.
In Minnesota, he will be paired with offensive-minded head coach Kevin O’Connell, providing the Vikings capable leadership on both sides of the ball. Flores is widely regarded as one of the game’s best defensive minds and brings to Minnesota an aggressive approach that should stand in stark contrast to the largely vanilla scheme the Vikings ran last season under coordinator Ed Donatell. The challenge Flores inherits is whether the Vikings are capable of executing some of the schemes he favors. Some say Donatell’s approach was vanilla because Minnesota’s players couldn’t handle anything more. Under Flores, they will be challenged to do so. For it to work, something will have to give.
History says it will. Flores’ philosophy hinges on gaining an in-depth understanding of how opposing offenses operate. Flores spent four years in the scouting department in New England under Bill Belichick, who is so detail oriented he is said to give prospective employees assignments that require 5-6 hours of film work breaking down a single play. That detail showed up in Flores’ work in Miami, where the Dolphins were excellent at attacking the tendencies and weaknesses of their opponents.
Scheme-wise, Flores bases out of a 3-4. He is especially fond of using the “Tite” front, which positions defensive linemen on an inside shade against offensive tackles, in what is commonly known as a 4i technique (see image below). This is an effective front against the run, particularly the inside zone play, because the shade anchors a defender in the B-gap, which is the sweet spot for most zone-run teams. To block the shade, offenses are often forced to use double-teams, which frees up linebackers to pursue the football.
In Minnesota, this stands to benefit Brian Asamoah, the second-year linebacker who will be counted upon to replace the departed Eric Kendricks. Asamoah is not big but he is fast and has great instincts. Flores’ scheme should keep Asamoah clean and provide him windows to the football. Flores is also big on versatility, and on using players in multiple roles. Asamoah is a prime candidate in this regard and will likely be employed creatively to take advantage of his athleticism.
The Tite front also works well for teams with a good nose tackle. Because of the double teams created in the B-gaps, the nose is often left one-on-one against the center. A nose who can win those encounters can wreak havoc. In Miami, Christian Wilkins flourished in this role. Wilkins played all over the line for the Dolphins but was particularly effective on the nose. He finished second on the team in tackles in 2021 with 89, which is a huge number for an interior lineman.
In Minnesota, this could create an opportunity for Khyiris Tonga. He played 11 games last season for the Vikings, who signed him off the Falcons practice squad in early October. Despite the limited sample-size, Pro Football Focus graded Tonga as Minnesota’s top interior defensive lineman. He’ll have plenty of opportunity in 2023, with last season’s starter at nose, Dalvin Tomlinson, leaving in free agency for Cleveland.
Minnesota played a base 3-4 last season under Donatell, so the transition up front shouldn’t be extreme. Where things get interesting will be with Flores’ exotic blitz packages, which will serve as a stark contrast to how the Vikings operated in 2022.
In 2021 under Flores, the Dolphins played over 50% of their defensive snaps in cover-0 or cover-1. They often paired these coverages with a “Mug” look at the line of scrimmage, where they created a +1 advantage by loading it with potential rushers and then forcing offenses to decide who was coming and who was falling into coverage. This created confusion in their protection schemes, leading to blitzers running free at the quarterback.
Here’s an example, from a game against the Rams. Miami walked up a safety and two backers to provide a 6-on-5 advantage at the line. Flores’ film study revealed L.A. would use a slide protection in this situation, meaning Miami could get a free runner off the edge:
The wrinkle here is they bluffed a rush with linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53). This muddied L.A.’s blocking scheme. Their five-man slide committed them to gap protection. When Van Noy dropped into coverage, they wound up with their left guard blocking air. Van Noy’s drop took away quarterback Matthew Stafford’s hot read, and when Stafford was forced to hold the ball, left end Emmanuel Ogbah (91) came clean for the sack. .
As a result of these types of pressures, where just about anyone could come or drop, the sacks in Miami were spread around. Safety Brandon Jones, for example, recorded five sacks in 2021. Safeties don’t get sacks because they are great pass rushers. They get sacks because the scheme provides them a path to the quarterback.
Miami’s pressure packages weren’t just effective at sacking opposing quarterbacks. The combination of pressure, camouflage and tight man coverage forced a combined passer rating of below 40 against their cover-0 and cover-1 looks in 2020 and 2021. They also allowed the Dolphins to finish 1st and 8th in the NFL, respectively, in turnovers in those seasons.
So, to summarize, Flores preferred a 3-4 Tite as his base front to take away the inside run game. Behind them, he was a blitz-heavy cover-0 or cover-1 with an emphasis on attacking the protection scheme of his opponents and using disguise to create confusion. The progress was significant. In three years at the helm in Miami, their defensive rankings improved every season:
2019 – Run Def (27), Pass Def (26), Total Def (30), Turnovers (29), Sacks (32)
2020 – Run Def (16), Pass Def (23), Total Def (20), Turnovers (1), Sacks (11)
2021 – Run Def (13), Pass Def (16), Total Def (15), Turnovers (8), Sacks (6)
The key to whether Flores can make this philosophy work in Minnesota hinges on a few things. First, can his defensive linemen hold up against the double teams his Tite front will inevitably draw? The Vikings finished 20th in rushing yards per game last season and lost two veteran run-stoppers in Tomlinson and Kendricks. How Asamoah and Tonga fare will be crucial.
The bigger challenge will be in their ability to play the steady diet of man-schemes that accompany Flores’ blitz looks. Whether Minnesota can go as heavy on man-coverage as Flores preferred in Miami is questionable. Flores had two excellent corners at his disposal — Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — and he relied on them to hold up one-on-one. The Vikings face a huge challenge in this regard. They lost their three most productive corners from last season – Patrick Peterson, Chandon Sullivan and Cameron Dantzler – in free agency. Veteran Byron Murphy Jr. was signed to serve as one replacement. The starter across from him will be Andrew Booth or Akayleb Evans, both of whom are inexperienced. The nickel corner spot is open as well and will be crucial given how heavily Flores leans on sub-package defense. In short, Minnesota needs to solidify its corner situation to fully implement Flores’ approach.
The good news for the Vikings is that Flores is starting from a clean slate. With so many defensive departures from last season, he is free to mold the new clay into whatever form he prefers. If Flores can create pressure with his blitzes, the secondary won’t be asked to hold up in coverage as long as it was last season. And his aggressive approach is sure to be favored by the players, who love a coach who lets them get after it. Minnesota is not heavily talented on defense. But neither were many of those New England teams with whom Flores found success as an assistant. The Patriots identified players who fit specific roles, then drilled them to execute at a high level. If Flores can do the same in Minnesota, the defense will be much improved.
In the end, the hiring of Flores is a boon to Minnesota’s defense. He brings a proven track record of success and an aggressive mindset that should benefit its younger players. The Vikings won’t be a Top 10 unit in 2023, but they may improve enough to keep Minnesota in the conversation among the best teams in the NFC.
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