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Vast Improvement On Defense Isn’t Impossible For the Vikings In 2023

Things couldn’t have gone worse for the Minnesota Vikings on the defensive side of the ball in 2022. The team yielded the second-most yardage in the entire NFL and struggled to consistently get to the quarterback down the stretch. This led to mediocre quarterbacks such as Mac Jones and Daniel Jones having some of their best games of the season when they faced the Vikings.

What led to the Vikings’ demise on defense? Ultimately, it was their porous pass defense which not only couldn’t cover the pass, but also struggled to pressure the quarterback down the stretch. EDGE rusher Za’Darius Smith, who signed with the team after having played the previous three seasons in Green Bay, suffered a knee injury in the team’s crazy victory over Buffalo. Through the team’s first nine games, Smith racked up a team-high 9.5 sacks. Over the final nine games, including the loss to the Giants in the playoffs, Smith notched all of 0.5 sacks. With the pass rush hampered, the Vikings’ secondary was exploited due to injuries, lack of development among young players, and a vanilla coverage scheme courtesy of defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

Many believe that the Vikings are not capable of taking significant strides in 2023, and on the surface level, it’d be hard to argue. The team parted ways with Smith, longtime starting linebacker Eric Kendricks, and cornerback Patrick Peterson, who tied for the team lead with five interceptions. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, a cog in the run game, left for Cleveland in free agency. None of the defensive rookies from the 2022 draft class made a significant impact in Year 1. So why should we believe that the unit will get any better?

The simple answer is Brian Flores. The former Miami Dolphins head coach spent the 2022 season as the linebackers coach and senior defensive assitant for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had compiled a 24-25 record in Miami with less-than-ideal ownership and was ridiculously fired for refusing to tank games. With a roster that left a lot to be desired, Flores’ defense improved from 32nd in points allowed in 2019 to 6th in 2020.

Now, he has to work his magic and field (at least) a somewhat-competent defense to compliment what could potentially be a high-flying offense. Optimistic? Sure. Unprecedented around Minnesota? No. In fact, the team that was on the winning end of the Minneapolis Miracle and on the doorstep to the Super Bowl? They entered that season with plenty of question marks.

Like the 2022 Vikings defense, the 2016 offense could only mask its problems for so long. After beginning the season 5-0, injuries began piling up and the offense couldn’t keep up with the 6th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL. The running game was non-existent, averaging a putrid 3.2 yards-per-carry. Led by last-second acquisition Sam Bradford, the offense became one-dimensional and finished 28th in total yards. Minnesota would drop eight of its final 11 games, missing the playoffs altogether.

During the 2017 off-season, the Vikings added help along the offense, but most weren’t splashy. They signed left tackle Riley Reiff in free agency and drafted Dalvin Cook in the second round. But without a first-round selection and a sour taste in their mouths from the previous season, radio waves weren’t dominated by Super Bowl talk leading up to the season. Then Bradford aggravated a lingering knee injury in Week 1 and Cook tore his ACL in Week 4. The Vikings were sitting at 2-2, and it felt like the team was re-living 2016 all over again.

Then, a curious thing happened. The Vikings began winning. A lot. They won seven games in a row and 11 of their next 12 total, including the Minneapolis Miracle. A year after only rushing for 100 yards or more twice all season, the Vikings would close out the regular season with 13 such games. This was without their starting quarterback and starting running back. And yet, the offense was as good as ever. With Case Keenum under center, the Vikings would finish the season with the 10th-highest scoring offense in the league. The team ranked 11th in passing and 7th in rushing.

Behind it all, calling all the plays, was Pat Shurmur, a former head coach of the Cleveland Browns who had joined the Vikings’ staff in 2016 as the team’s tight end coach. He took over as the interim offensive coordinator after Norv Turner resigned mid-season and, with an off-season to work with Bradford, began implementing an offense that complemented head coach Mike Zimmer’s stingy defense.

Although the running game wasn’t very efficient, averaging 3.9 yards-per-carry, 23rd in the league, Shurmur stuck to the run game, a popular strategy with defensive-minded head coaches. The Vikings ran 501 times in 2017, the second-highest rate in the league, leaning on free-agent Latavius Murray once Cook went down.

With the run game churning, the team didn’t have to rely on Keenum to be a superhero. He just had to get the ball out to playmakers Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph on occasion and not ruin the game. It worked, as he only threw seven interceptions on the year. The team’s eight total interceptions was the second-fewest in the league.

Ultimately, though, no one benefitted more from the offense’s success than the Vikings’ defense. After ranking 11th, 5th, and 6th in scoring defense over Zimmer’s first three seasons, the Vikings ranked 1st in 2017 in both yards and points allowed. The team rode that momentum to the NFC Championship Game. We’ll gloss over the fact that everything fell apart in a 38-7 drubbing courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles.

So how does Shurmur’s success in improving a poor offense in 2017 relate to Flores improving one of the league’s worst defenses in 2023? Even with the departures of Smith, Peterson, Kendricks, and Tomlinson, the Vikings didn’t exactly add any star names to replace them. They signed former Packers defensive end Dean Lowry to start, but he isn’t going to bring back any memories of the Purple People Eaters. Cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr. was brought in and has flexibility at both outside and nickel corner. Again, though, he hasn’t drawn comparisons to guys like Darrelle Revis during his first four years. Hell, the team didn’t even use their first-round pick on a defender.

Instead, Flores is going to have to mold a formidable defense out of unproven and sometimes even underwhelming parts. In doing so, he can compliment a Vikings offense that had as many high-octane moments as it had lulls in 2022. During his introductory press conference in February, Flores spoke about his defensive philosophy.

“I’m aggressive by nature,” Flores said. “Philosophically, that’s something I believe in.”

Schematically, what does he believe in? When asked whether he plans to run a 3-4 defense like the team did in 2022 or the more traditional 4-3, Flores replied, “Who are we playing?”

This is a staunch difference from Donatell’s defense. His defense consistently left cornerbacks ten yards off the line of scrimmage and rarely blitzed even when it was obvious that what they were running wasn’t working. With no creativity and aging, slower players, the Vikings never stood a chance to make a serious run despite their 13-4 record.

If Flores can keep offensive coordinators on their toes every week, the Vikings should be able to make strides on defense. They got off to a good start in their first preseason game on Thursday night against the Seattle Seahawks. Although they ultimately gave up 24 points in total, the Vikings only allowed seven points in the first half, when a majority of players who played will end up on the active roster.

Schematically, Flores kept things close to the vest, not showing many of the exotic blitzes that we’ve heard about from camp. But the unit flew around the field, showing resistance and a glimpse of what we can expect during the season. Although there are unknowns sprinkled throughout the defense, there are still enough veterans that can help the defense better compliment the offense in 2023.

Does this mean that the Vikings’ defense will jump up and become a top-10 unit in 2023 like the 2017 Vikings offense did? Probably not. But if the defense can take strides and show that they are different not only schematically but philosophically as well, they can become a respectable unit that helps the offense close games out earlier in 2023.

 

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