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What Brian Flores is Gearing Up for This Season

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By: Warren Ludford

And how he plans to put the hurt on opposing offenses

Perhaps the only positive that came out of last season for the Vikings was the improvement of the defense under Brian Flores.

After three seasons as one of the worst defenses in the league in both yards and points allowed, the Vikings defense improved to 13th in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed last season. And despite not having any top-tier defensive tackles, Flores’ defense yielded the 4th lowest yards per rushing attempt and 8th fewest rushing yards on the season.

But for all the exotic blitz packages and the league high blitz rate, the Vikings’ defense was only around average in pass defense, ranking 15th in yards per pass attempt allowed. Total passing yards allowed was worse, ranking 24th, while quarterback pressure rate improved only slightly, going from 29.5% in 2022 to 33% in 2023 according to SIS (Sports Info Solutions). That ranked just 25th in the league.

Still, the bottom-line results were a dramatic improvement, going from 28th to 13th in points allowed and 31st to 16th in yards allowed. And, if not for some injuries toward the end of the season, the improvement would’ve likely been even more dramatic.

What’s more impressive is that Flores made that dramatic improvement with a no-name defense lacking top-tier talent at most positions. The only top-tier talent on defense last season was Danielle Hunter. Harrison Smith used to be a top-tier talent at safety but at age 34 last season, is no longer in that category.

The essence of what Flores did last season schematically was to use quantity to make up for the lack of quality. That led to choosing either to bring numbers in the pass rush, or in coverage.

For example, the Vikings used 6+ pass rushers at the highest rate in the league last season (27%), but also ranked second-highest in use of Dime+ coverage packages (6 or more defensive backs) at 24%. On the other hand, they played from their base defense just 8% of the time last season, which ranked 30th in the league, and used more orthodox four pass rushers at a league-low 30% rate.

Bottom line, on key passing downs Brian Flores was either bringing the blitz or dropping eight players in coverage hoping that by overloading one end of his pass defense, he would be successful in breaking up the play.

But for all the exotic schemes when it came to pass defense last season, the area where the Vikings defense performed the best was, ironically, run defense. The Vikings defense faced zone runs a league-high 82% of designed run plays, ranking 23rd in EPA allowed on those plays. They ranked 5th in EPA terms in defending gap runs, which explains- perhaps- why teams went with zone runs against them so often. Overall, the Vikings ranked fourth in yards per rushing attempt allowed at 3.8.

New Talent, New Possibilities

The greatest turnover on defense this off-season came in the front seven, with Andrew Van Ginkel, Jonathan Greenard, Dallas Turner, and Black Cashman replacing Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport, D.J. Wonnum, and Jordan Hicks.

In terms of overall PFF grades last season, Van Ginkel outperformed Hunter, Greenard outperformed Wonnum, and Cashman outperformed Hicks. You could also argue that Turner, playing at Alabama last season, added about as much value to the Vikings defense as Davenport did.

All of the new players are younger than those players they replaced as well.

Overall, the turnover among these front seven starters resulted in a significant upgrade in talent level, while also getting younger at these positions too.

On the back end, there wasn’t any real turnover during the off-season, as the existing starters were all retained (for now). But notable additions were veteran Shaq Griffin, fourth-round pick Khyree Jackson, and UDFA signing Dwight McGlothern- who had the highest coverage grade and second-highest overall PFF grade among cornerbacks in the FBS last season playing against SEC competition. There were no changes or additions at safety during the off-season.

But that’s not to say there won’t be any changes in the backend of the Vikings defense this season.

Competition at Cornerback

On the backend, Vikings’ head coach Kevin O’Connell has indicated in off-season press conferences that they’re looking to play Byron Murphy, who they acquired in free agency last season, more exclusively at slot cornerback. He played mainly outside cornerback in base defense and when the Vikings used a safety in the slot last season. Overall, he played outside about twice as often as he played in the slot.

Secondly, O’Connell also said that the Vikings would like to play more man coverage this season compared to last season, when they played man coverage at the second-lowest rate in the league at just 11% of pass plays.

Those two intentions could result in at least one new starter at outside cornerback this season. The additions of Griffin, Jackson, and McGlothern will add to the competition at cornerback, where the Vikings already had eight other players on the roster.

Mekhi Blackmon didn’t become a starter until late last season but finished as the highest PFF overall and coverage graded cornerback on the team and had zero missed tackles in 434 total defensive snaps. He would seem to have the inside track for a starting job at one of the outside cornerback spots this season.

There will likely be competition at all the cornerback spots. Akayleb Evans started last season at right outside cornerback but was benched a couple time late in the season and has allowed a near 70% completion rate in his coverage and a passer rating of 108 over two seasons and little improvement last year over his rookie year. He was also tied for the most missed tackles (with Byron Murphy Jr.) last season with 18.

It’s interesting that both Khyree Jackson and Dwight McGlothern did well in man coverage in college and were disruptive with good ball skills, and among the best PFF grades for tackling and rushing the passer. Both were top seven in both categories amongst Power Five conference cornerbacks last season. These are the traits Brian Flores prefers in his cornerbacks.

Improving Talent Leading to a Better Scheme Design

Last season, given the defensive talent at his disposal, Brian Flores adapted the scheme he used in Miami. He only had one quality pass rusher on the defensive line to work with, and he didn’t have cornerbacks that could play man coverage well. So, he was forced to play zone coverage behind his blitz packages, rather than the more traditional man coverage- which is more effective. But he didn’t have the players for it. Moreover, he didn’t have enough talented pass rushers to be effective getting to the quarterback either.

And so it was more of a Brian Flores-lite type defense than the one he ran in Miami.

The all-or-nothing aspect to the scheme tripped up opposing offenses enough to improve the Vikings’ defensive rankings in points and yards allowed, despite not ranking high in any particular situation (early down, later downs, red zone, mid-field), nor did it result in a lot of takeaways for the Vikings defense.

But with some better talent- both up-front and maybe in the backend too- the Vikings might be able to operate a full-fledged Brian Flores defensive scheme this season.

Operating a Full-Fledged Brian Flores Scheme

With the influx of new talent up-front, Brian Flores may be able to execute his pass rush scheme more effectively. Having Andrew Van Ginkel, Jonathan Greenard, and Dallas Turner rushing the passer, augmented by blitzing linebackers and/or defensive backs, will likely lead to a pass rush that gets home to the quarterback quicker, resulting in more quarterback pressures and more forced errors by opposing quarterbacks.

At the same time, using more man coverage on the backend will help eliminate the effectiveness of the counters opposing offenses often use against Flores’ blitz packages. Not being able to use the quick passing game as effectively to counter those blitz packages- which man coverage is meant to curtail- will force opposing quarterbacks to either hold the ball longer or throw into tighter coverage. Both would result in more negative plays for opposing offenses, shorter drives, fewer points, and more turnovers.

But for that to happen, the new defensive talent will need to deliver. The new talent up-front has a good track record from last season, and rookie Dallas Turner was the highest ranked edge rusher on the consensus board and is currently the favorite to be Defensive Rookie of the Year according to oddsmakers. All that bodes well for the Vikings’ defense up-front.

The backend talent doesn’t have that track record and the rookies being Day Three picks or UDFAs make them less likely to have the kind of impact necessary to operate Flores’ scheme effectively. That’s not to say they can’t do it. Khyree Jackson and Dwight McGlothern were two of the best cornerbacks in the Power Five conferences last season. And Mekhi Blackmon is coming off a good rookie year and could get better this season. And maybe the veterans like Byron Murphy Jr., Shaq Griffin, Akayleb Evans, and/or Andrew Booth Jr. are able to step up. Any combination of improvement would be welcome news for Brian Flores and the Vikings’ defense and may be the biggest upside surprise needed for the Vikings’ defense to take another step forward this season under Brian Flores.

It will be interesting to see how that competition at cornerback unfolds during the off-season and training camp, as currently cornerback appears to be the weakest link on defense. Having at least one of the new cornerbacks work out- and/or one of the existing ones raising their game- would be huge.

Stay tuned.

Follow me on X/Twitter @wludford

Originally posted on Daily Norseman