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Brian Flores’ Belichick-Style Defense

Flores’ 15 years under Bill Belichick a major influence in his style and scheme

Brian Flores played linebacker for Boston College after growing up in, and making it out of, one of the poorest and roughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. After his dream of playing in the NFL ended with a quadricep injury late in his college career, he got into scouting and was hired by the Patriots as a scout in 2004 at age 23. He would end up spending 15 years under Bill Belichick in the Patriots organization, the first four as a scout, and the last 11 working his way up the coaching ranks, first coaching special teams, and later defense as safeties and linebackers coach, and de facto defensive coordinator and defensive play-caller in 2018. He picked up four Super Bowl rings along the way.

Flores also learned Belichick’s defensive scheme, his coaching style, defensive philosophy, and scouting priorities. He adopted them, adapted them, and took them with him when he left New England.

Bill Belichick’s Coaching Style

Bill Belichick is famously (or infamously) gruff as a coach. Not particularly genial or generous with compliments and pep talks with his players, Belichick focuses instead on coaching the fundamentals, ‘do your job’, and being disciplined. He emphasizes accountability and a team-first mentality. When he first started as head coach of the Patriots, a former first-round pick strolled in late to a meeting, walking across the room while Belichick was talking. Belichick asked him what the hell he was doing and told him to leave. He later cut him.

When Brian Flores became head coach of the Dolphins, he faced a similar situation when a two-time Pro Bowler and the highest paid player on the team didn’t show up for voluntary OTAs. Flores comment at the time:

“This is my general opinion on leadership: if you work hard and you put the team first, you’re a leader. So I want to have 53 leaders on our team. I want 90 on our team right now. That’s something that you can develop. It’s something you can talk about. But if you work hard and you put the team first, you’re showing leadership. So Pro Bowls — I mean, you can be a Pro Bowler and be lazy. That happens. If that’s the case, you’re not really a leader, you’re just an elite talent.”

Flores was later asked about whether the player would start, and Flores said, “It’s about how you practice, prepare and perform.” The player later lost his starting job and was cut the following year.

Bill Belichick’s Defensive Philosophy and Scouting Priorities

Back in 1991, when Bill Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns, he wrote some notes that encapsulated his defensive philosophy and scouting priorities on the defensive side of the ball. Here are his points:

General Defensive Philosophy
  • Defend the middle of the field first. Don’t allow an offense to run or pass inside.
  • Pressure the QB up the middle.
  • Force them to go outside
  • Use an extra defensive back or 3rd down cover linebacker to cover receiving running backs
Defensive Tackles/Nose Tackles
  • Explosive quickness and can play well in confined space. Explode power, quickness and leverage. Big and explosive quickness is what you want.
  • 4.8 speed not main ingredient. Size can be 275+ lbs. if he has other ingredients.
  • Need big, strong guy you can bring in when you have to, to go against big, good linemen.
Defensive Ends
  • Need all-around player- big, strong and can run.
  • Prefer big, strong guy rather than faster guy to stop the run first. Can sub a pass rusher.
Defensive Line Generally
  • Can’t get knocked off line-of-scrimmage.
  • Size over speed at defensive end.
  • Pressure up the middle causes more problems than guys running around the corner.
  • Frame and growth potential important too.
OLBs/Edge Rushers
  • Big, rangy guy that can run if possible to get (first-round pick)
  • Settle for guys that can stay on line of scrimmage with long arms and quick hands
  • 6’2” OLBs hard to like even if they can run upfield- don’t have the size and range
  • OLBs need size, speed, and athletic ability
Inside Linebackers
  • Has to be able to play in close quarters
  • Instinctive, explosive tacklers who can face-up and knock guys back
  • Can play zone and not be put in man situations
  • Good blitzer, must be football smart. Instincts over intelligence.
  • Quickness, aggressiveness, leverage- explosive power. Knock-off/stopping power.
Defensive Backs and Safeties
  • Have to work well together like an offensive line. Sense of team, working together and unselfishness.
  • Tacklers- especially at safety- at least 200 lbs.
  • Speed 4.5”-4.6” at safety. High IQ not needed.
  • Size, speed, the more man coverage ability the better.
  • 200 pound, 4.75” guys can’t play for us- has to play the pass. Traditional strong safety vs. run not what we need.
  • Former cornerbacks moved inside might be ideal if they have size.
  • Ball skills and judgment are essential, more so than pure speed and athletic ability.
  • Pure cover corner is needed. 5’10”+.
  • Can’t put guys on the field who cannot tackle.
  • Size a factor- small cover cornerback a liability.
  • Intelligence on defense not a great factor.
Five Defensive Problems
  • Tackling
  • Selfishness
  • Size- need big, physical, strong guys.
  • Competitiveness- do they play hard for 60 minutes? Do they play hard on PATs?
  • Symmetry on defense

Some of these may have evolved a bit since 1991, but if you look at the personnel on Belichick’s defenses over the years- including recent years- they conform pretty well. Since 1991, Belichick has had a top ten defense in points allowed in 23 of 31 seasons and hasn’t ranked below 11th in any of the past 11 seasons.

We can see some of these priorities in the players the Vikings have signed on defense- and ones they’ve not signed or let go. Certainly Brian Flores, as defensive coordinator, had a voice in these decisions. For example:

  • Free agent acquisition CB Byron Murphy Jr., 5’11” and described as, “Ball-hawking man corner who makes up for a lack of physical tools with outstanding instincts, toughness, and short-area quickness” on his scouting report.
  • Free agent acquisition OLB Marcus Davenport, 6’6”, 265 lbs. with a 9.67 RAS and also a good run defender in the NFL- can set the edge- really a good fit.
  • Free agent acquisition Dean Lowry maybe isn’t known as much for bringing quickness and explosive power, but at his best has been a good power rusher and still fits the guideline for a defensive tackle.
  • Duke Shelley, who played well for the Vikings last season, falls outside of the scouting guideline for cornerback. The Vikings didn’t make a strong effort to bring him back.
  • Cameron Dantzler was also released, who does fit the profile, but there may have been other reasons there.
  • Patrick Peterson, who was an ideal fit in his prime, is more of a zone corner now and not as good a fit anymore. The Vikings weren’t willing to match a surprisingly good offer by the Steelers.
  • Eric Kendricks was also released, but more of a cap casualty and declining performance in his role as a three-down linebacker.
  • Jordan Hicks and Harrison Smith, who might have been cut like Kendricks, instead were kept on and their contracts restructured. Both are older, but still fit the profile.
  • Among draft prospects the Vikings have met with, guys like DT Karl Brooks, CB Kelee Ringo, and ED Isaiah Foskey appear to be good fits. Brian Flores also had a lot of positive things to say about ED Derick Hall while scouting for the Steelers prior to being named DC for the Vikings.
Bill Belichick Scheme

While there is a lot to cover in Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme, these two videos provide very in-depth explanation of the five-man front Belichick and Flores used a fair amount in 2018, when Flores was calling the defensive plays, and the various stunts that go with it. Footage is from the Patriots playoff run and Super Bowl win that year.

The second video goes in-depth with the coverage concepts that go with the five-man front. You can use your imagination to substitute Vikings players for Patriot players in this scheme. If the Vikings can afford to keep Za’Darius Smith, along with Danielle Hunter and Marcus Robinson, they could execute this scheme very well. Perhaps even without Smith. Harrison Smith could substitute for Patrick Chung. Byron Murphy Jr. as the star defender.

On to Miami

Vikings’ new defensive coordinator Brian Flores was named head coach of the Miami Dolphins ahead of the 2019 season. It was a rough year, as Flores had to overcome a poor team culture and a roster without much talent.

The Dolphins’ defense finished dead last in points allowed, dead last in DVOA, dead last in net yards per passing attempt allowed, dead last in percentage of scoring drives allowed, 30th in total yards allowed, 28th in takeaways, 27th in red zone TD% allowed, 24th in third-down conversion percentage allowed. The Dolphins’ defense also had the worst overall PFF grade, the worst coverage grade, and the worst pass rush grade in the league.

There weren’t really any bright spots on the roster either. He didn’t have a single starter with an overall PFF grade above 70, and quite a few starters and rotational players graded below 60. He had a total of 14 defensive backs that played at least 75 snaps. His sack leader had just five sacks, and only three players had more than two sacks. His defensive roster had needs everywhere, and although he had five draft picks in the first two rounds, he used only two of them on defensive players- CB Noah Igbinoghene and DT Raekwon Davis. Neither have proven to be good picks.

Flores also replaced his defensive coordinator Patrick Graham with a Patriots’ alum- Josh Boyer- as he sought to rebuild his last ranked defense.

But Flores also got Xavien Howard back from injury at cornerback for the 2020 season, acquired a struggling DE Emmanuel Ogbah in free agency, and paid big money acquire CB Byron Jones and OLB Kyle Van Noy. Back from 2019 were safeties Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain, OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, DT Christian Wilkins, OLB Jerome Baker, CB Nik Needham.

Overall, far from an all-star lineup.

The 2020 Turnaround

The biggest change from 2019 was at cornerback. Flores got Xavien Howard back from injury and had acquired Byron Jones to fill the other outside cornerback spot and returning Nik Needham playing the slot. Even though Howard was the only defensive back with a PFF coverage grade over 64 in 2020 (he had an 89 grade and was All-Pro) that was enough for Flores’ blitz and man-coverage-heavy scheme to yield better results.

Miami’s defense went from dead last in most key metrics in 2019, to top half, including 11th in DVOA, 1st in turnovers, 4th in scoring drive % allowed, 6th in points allowed, 1st in 3rd down conversions allowed, and 7th in red zone TD% allowed, in 2020.

In both 2019 and 2020 Flores used man coverage around 55% of the time- among the top three teams in the league those years, along with New England and Detroit- two other teams running Belichick-style schemes. Flores took a more aggressive approach than in his Belichick years by incorporating more Cover-0 calls- a boom-or-bust approach that may have helped mitigate shortcomings on his defensive roster. The video below summarizes Flores’ approach in Miami.

Bottom Line

Brian Flores is steeped in all things Belichick in his approach to defense, having spent 15 of his formative years under Belichick in New England. He took all that with him to Miami and adapted it to his roster with good success in 2020, despite having a less than ideal roster to pull it off and dealing with other off-field issues as well.

Flores won’t have as much heavy-lifting to do in Minnesota as he did when he first landed in Miami, but the Vikings’ defensive roster is less than ideal right now as well- particularly the secondary. But if some of the unproven defensive backs on the Vikings roster- a couple of them high draft picks like Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr., can develop into good players, and the Vikings are able to make some good defensive draft picks as well, he could engineer a similar improvement in Minnesota as he did in Miami back in 2020.

Flores’ focus on pressuring the quarterback could prove particularly effective against NFC North opponents next year, as both Jared Goff and Justin Fields had among the worst PFF grades under pressure last year, and assuming Aaron Rodgers has played his last snap in Green Bay, a young and inexperienced Jordan Love is unlikely to do well under pressure either.


Will the Vikings be able to field a good enough defensive roster this year to make Brian Flores’ scheme work well?

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