Of all the moves the Minnesota Vikings have made since the end of last season, the hiring of Brian Flores as defensive coordinator may prove to be the most impactful. Indeed, if the Vikings are to advance further than they did last season, it may well hinge on Flores’ ability to engineer improvement in the Vikings' defense.
As OTAs get underway this week, offensive players are already talking about the defense in terms like, “Intense,” “Exotic,” and, “It’s crazy.” You can begin to see and get a sense of how the defense is going to be different this season than it was a year ago.
It’s no secret that the Vikings’ defense was terrible last season. In fact, it’s been terrible since the 2020 season, when it fell off a cliff from the previous year and has remained near the bottom of the league ever since. Mike Zimmer was not able to fix it in his remaining years with the Vikings, and Ed Donatell was not able to do so either. It is now defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ task.
Fortunately for the Vikings, this isn’t the first time Flores has been put in this situation. After a long and distinguished tenure spanning most of the Patriots’ dynasty years, Flores took a head coaching job in Miami, a team in disarray. The defense was one of the worst in the league prior to Flores’ arrival, and the following year wasn’t any better- largely due to a plague of injuries but also because the team was being dismantled and preparing for a rebuild. The following year, 2020, with the return of injured players and a slightly improved culture, Flores took the Dolphins defense from dead last in points allowed to sixth. And he did that with a modestly talented roster that didn’t rank in the top ten in any defensive facet (pass rush, coverage, tackling, run defense) according to PFF. In fact, the Dolphins defense ranked 15th overall in PFF grade that year, including 22nd in coverage and 28th in tackling. And yet they managed to allow the sixth-fewest points in the league.
In many ways, that performance vs. PFF grades was the opposite of what happened with the Vikings last season.
Grading Defensive Personnel
One of the more perplexing aspects of the Vikings' defense last season was the dichotomy between its rankings in metrics- both simple and advanced- and the overall PFF grades assigned to its personnel and overall unit grades.
For example, the Vikings ranked 28th in points allowed, 31st in yards allowed, and 27th in DVOA, and yet the overall PFF grade for the defense ranked 4th.
In rushing yards allowed, rushing TDs allowed, and rushing yards per attempt allowed, and rushing DVOA, the Vikings ranked 20th, 23rd, 22nd, and 19th respectively. And yet the team’s PFF run defense grade ranked 2nd and the team PFF tackling grade ranked 4th.
In passing yards allowed, net yards per pass attempt allowed, passing TDs allowed, and passing DVOA, the Vikings ranked 31st, 30th, 14th, and 26th respectively, and 10th in interceptions. And yet the team PFF pass-rush grade was ranked 10th, and the team PFF coverage grade was ranked 18th.
If you compare the defensive rosters of the Vikings and 49ers last season by individual PFF grades, snaps played, etc., you won’t find huge differences to indicate which defense was top-ranked and which was near the bottom. Overall, I think anyone who compared both defensive rosters from a PFF grade perspective would say the 49ers had the better one overall, but on the other hand I doubt many would think the difference in terms of results and rankings would be so great. The Vikings’ defense gave up 150 more points and almost 1500 more yards than the 49ers' defense last season.
Overall, the 49ers were ranked second in PFF overall defensive grade, while the Vikings were ranked fourth. One would not suspect, based on those overall grades and rankings, that the 49ers were the top-ranked defense in points and yards allowed, while the Vikings ranked 28th and 31st respectively.
PFF also produces something called PFF WAR, the WAR standing for Wins Above Replacement, which attempts to convert PFF grades into how many wins a team should have based on how well they’ve played. The measure is wins above a team of replacement-level players (i.e. practice squad and low-level free agents) that is assumed to have a 3-13 record in a 16-game season (haven’t seen the conversion to a 17-game season).
Above are the PFF WAR numbers for each team last season through week sixteen. As you can see, the Vikings ranked third-best in Team WAR according to PFF, which is consistent with their final season PFF team grades.
PFF then compares WAR with actual wins, where a one-score win (8-points or less) is treated as a half-win for both teams, regardless of which team won the game, as one-score wins historically tend to even out over time and doing so helps improve the strength and stability of the model (and thereby improving its predictive value) according to PFF.
After week sixteen last season, the Vikings adjusted win total (counting each one-score game as a half-win) was 6.5. That included 11 one-score games along with one win and three losses outside of one-score. But according to PFF Team WAR, the Vikings should’ve had 10.27 wins (7.27 WAR + 3-win replacement level), meaning the team under-achieved relative to player performance by nearly four (adjusted) wins.
The normal interpretation of such an underachievement is that the Vikings were unlucky. And yet winning 11 one-score games is generally seen as being lucky, not unlucky, and other “luck” measures indicate the Vikings were, on balance, advantaged not disadvantaged by luck factors.
What’s also interesting is that while the Vikings ranked fifth in offensive WAR and overall offensive team PFF grade, which was consistent with their finishing the season ranked 8th and 7th in points and yards, they ranked fourth in defensive WAR and overall defensive PFF grade, which was wildly off from their end of season ranking of 28th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed.
This of course leads to the question: why the disparity? Why did the same metric and methodology produce a fairly accurate representation of the Vikings' offense last season, while totally misrepresenting the Vikings' defense? And also why did the Vikings underperform their WAR instead of overperforming it as many observers thought?
Ben Brown of PFF struggles to make sense of it, but offers a possible explanation:
Offensive WAR Rank: 5th
Defensive WAR Rank: 4th
Top Individual Player Rank: WR Justin Jefferson (1st)
The Vikings are a bit of an anomaly, to say the least, and they continue to be one of the most perplexing teams to evaluate. WAR doesn’t seem to provide a ton of answers, as they rank a surprising fourth among defenses despite allowing one of the league’s worst marks in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play.
Big plays swing things in their direction, with their edge rush duo of Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith ranking in the top 10 at their positions and Patrick Peterson checking in as the fourth-best cornerback. This suggests that many of their defensive issues could be related to schematic preferences and coaching.
The Importance of Scheme in the NFL
When the Vikings hired Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator last year, the Vic Fangio defense was all the rage. Offensive coaches were saying it was the most challenging to play against, and it was clearly a trend that defenses across the league were embracing. Indeed, some were saying it was the increasing use of Fangio’s scheme that led to a decrease in scoring.
But with Vic Fangio taking a year off after being fired as head coach in Denver, hiring Fangio’s longtime assistant- Ed Donatell- made sense for Kevin O’Connell coming from the Rams- which used a version of Fangio’s scheme as well. After all, who was more familiar with Fangio’s scheme than Donatell- who had been running it for years under Fangio?
The problem is that while Donatell ran Fangio’s 3-4, 2-high safety defense last year for the Vikings, it lacked the nuance that Fangio added to it. Donatell was content to rush four or less 78% of the time while running zone coverage, and often a soft zone coverage, 85% of the time. Efforts at disguise often seemed half-hearted or simply weren’t there at all. The result was a scheme that was predictable and allowed opposing quarterbacks, even struggling quarterbacks, to find their groove and drive the field with seeming ease. Offensive coordinators were also adapting to the Fangio scheme as the season progressed. In the end, forty-one percent of the Vikings’ opponent’s drives resulted in a score- 5th worst in the league.
But from a PFF grading standpoint, how much can you ding a cornerback that allows an underneath reception when, by scheme design, he’s playing a soft zone coverage that makes it difficult at best to maintain tight coverage on shorter, underneath routes? Similarly, do you give an edge rusher a negative grade if he beat his blocker, but the ball was out in 2.5 seconds or less- and before he got to the quarterback?
As I mentioned in my piece a couple of weeks ago on the Vikings and DVOA last season, the approach and scheme used by Ed Donatell and Vikings’ new defensive coordinator Brian Flores could not be more different. Where Donatell employed more of a prevent-style defense with zone coverage and below-average blitzing, Flores’ employs more of an aggressive, attack-style defense with more man coverage and above-average blitz rates. The signature look of Flores’ defense is the zero-blitz, meaning everyone up on or near the line of scrimmage with no deep safeties, threatening an all-out blitz. He doesn’t always do so, as sometimes a number of players drop back into coverage, but which players drop and which rush becomes an issue for offensive protection schemes that increases execution risk, or the likelihood of an offensive mistake or scheme failure.
With such a diametrically opposite approach to defense, the issues of scheme and coaching that likely led to the defense significantly underperforming its potential last season are likely to be eliminated. There may be others that arise from the new scheme and defensive coordinator, but they’re unlikely to be the same issues as last season.
Getting the Most from Defensive Personnel
A common refrain from coaches in the NFL is that they want to put their players in the best position to succeed. Doing so often involves creating subtle position advantages in angles or leverage, creating matchup advantages, recognizing pre-snap keys, opponent tendencies, knowing player strengths and weaknesses, and putting them in a position to use the former and mitigate the latter.
Disguising defensive play calls effectively also gives defensive players an advantage, as it can lead to mistakes in offensive reads, protection and play calls.
Many defensive coordinators, like Ed Donatell, seek to build these advantages into their scheme, with relatively little adaptation in weekly game planning. Others, like Brian Flores, tend to be more adaptive in their weekly game planning, potentially making more significant changes in scheme and play-calling from week to week.
There are pros and cons to each approach, with the less adaptive approach allowing for earlier mastery but more predictability, while the more adaptive approach can be more difficult for players to execute each week but can be more difficult for opposing offenses and offensive coordinators to play against. When the former isn’t working, the criticism is that the scheme has become too stale or predictable. When the latter isn’t working, the criticism is that they’re trying to do too much.
Getting to Know the Elements of Brian Flores’ Scheme
The first thing to know about Brian Flores is that he spent the first fifteen years (2004-2018) of his professional career under Bill Belichick with the Patriots. Belichick is a defensive coach and the basics of Flores’ defense are grounded in Belichick’s approach. I did an intro to Flores’ defense back in March but wanted to add a couple of things to it here.
Having learned under Belichick, Flores’ scheme shares the basic tenets of Belichick’s approach to defense, which include:
- Defend the middle of the field first. Don’t allow teams to run or pass inside- force them to go outside. Pressure quarterback up the middle.
- Preference for man coverage
- Adapt to take away opponent’s strength. Multiple formation/coverage approach.
Why Versatility is So Important in Flores’ Scheme
Player versatility is valued by nearly every coach and scheme to one extent or another. Defensively, players that can play multiple gaps, or play multiple defensive back spots, or are good in multiple facets- pass rush, coverage, tackling, run defense- provide more value than those that are not. But not every coach or scheme actually uses player versatility to their best advantage or seeks to acquire players who offer position versatility. In those cases, players are asked to play one position, often with one defensive facet in mind- run stuffing interior lineman, zone corner, pass rush specialist, or two-down run thumping linebacker.
But for Brian Flores, he wants versatility in his defensive players because he expects to use it, and that versatility plays a role in the effectiveness of his scheme and his ability to adapt it week-to-week against different opponents.
A key aspect of Flores’ scheme that requires player versatility to be most effective is deception. For example, Flores’ signature look is the zero-blitz. That involves having nearly every player at the line of scrimmage threatening an all-out blitz. In most cases, some of those players drop back into coverage, and some rush the quarterback. But which players rush and which drop back is a problem for the offense. But if some players aren’t particularly versatile and can’t operate out of multiple gaps, or can’t pass rush or cover effectively, those become limiting factors. Even more, opponents will know what players are capable of, and can use that information to pinpoint the deception or take advantage of a player doing something he’s not good at. That can reduce the effectiveness of the zero-blitz look and/or make it more exploitable.
Other instances of using player versatility include moving defensive backs either inside or outside or from safety to nickel to take advantage of a matchup advantage- or prevent a matchup disadvantage. Defensive backs can also be called upon to replace another blitzing defensive back on certain play calls as well. Versatility for defensive linemen can also be used to create optimal pass rush packages or leave offensive linemen blocking nobody while the defensive lineman drops into coverage.
Flores’ Signature Zero-Blitz Look
On a Thursday night game against the Ravens during the 2021 season, Brian Flores gave a zero-blitz look forty times. 40. Thirty-five of those times he actually executed the blitz rather than fake it, which was roughly half the Ravens’ offensive snaps. One reason he kept calling the zero-blitz was because the Ravens couldn’t beat it- at least not until late in the game. The Ravens had one of the better offensive lines, two good blocking tight ends, and the most dynamic running quarterback in the league, but they couldn’t manage to beat Flores’ zero-blitz.
Brett Kollmann did a nice job breaking down that game, Flores’ version of the zero-blitz, and potential counters to it. It’s a good primer on how Flores’ uses the zero-blitz, how it’s not as aggressive in some ways as other versions, and how it can be more effective in combating some of the typical counters to it. It also gives some substance to Flores’ saying that he likes to be aggressive, but not reckless.
Overall, Flores ran a cover-zero blitz on about 10% of snaps while in Miami, which was highest in the league.
Coaching Up the Defensive Roster
Looking back again at the 2022-23 defensive roster, we know now that several starters from last season are no longer with the team, a couple of which were among the highest in overall PFF grade. The loss of Za’Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Patrick Peterson would appear to be significant losses for the Vikings this season. Others, such as Chandon Sullivan, Eric Kendricks, Cam Dantzler, and Duke Shelley may not be as significant- although Shelley in particular played well in more limited snaps last season.
We don’t yet know what kind of season players set to replace those above will have, but it’s reasonable to expect similar performance from Marcus Davenport as Za’Darius Smith in Flores’ defense. Byron Murphy Jr. will likely be an upgrade over Chandon Sullivan at slot corner, and Brian Asamoah could prove to be the same over Eric Kendricks at linebacker. I could see Dean Lowry being a better fit in some ways for Flores’ defense than Tomlinson, particularly in running twists, but Tomlinson was the better PFF-graded player last season. Beyond that, much depends on second-year players and potentially a few rookies as well. Andrew Booth Jr. is a first-round talent who fell to the second round due to his injury history, which like Derek Stingley Jr. selected #3 overall last year, impaired his rookie season. Lewis Cine missed nearly his entire rookie season but looks to have made a full recovery from his gruesome ankle injury. Akayleb Evans will also compete with rookie third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon for a cornerback spot. There are at least another half-dozen or so young players who could impact the defensive roster and earn some reps this season. With such a different scheme, there could be some surprises.
Overall, we don’t know how this year’s roster will compare to last year’s. Individual improvement and regression can be difficult to determine from one year to the next, especially running a different scheme. But the fact that the Vikings parted ways with a few players that were once All-Pros but are now in their 30s doesn’t mean the defensive roster will be worse as a result. Marcus Davenport, Brian Asamoah, and Andrew Booth Jr. could prove to be as good or better than the vets they replaced. We’ll just have to wait and see.
At the moment, Brian Flores and his staff are working to coach up all the defensive players, young and old, in the new scheme. His desire to develop versatility and understand player strengths and weaknesses is showing in some of the methods he’s using in OTAs.
Rather than maintain strict position group drills, Flores is also spending some practice time having players go through ‘circuits’ where they learn a particular technique. Linemen may learn how to drop into short zone coverage, defensive backs how to rush the passer, or linebackers how to play from the 3-technique, etc.
Additionally, in some of the 11-on-11 drills it’s been reported that Flores sometimes had three safeties at the line of scrimmage, Cam Bynum sometimes playing slot corner, among other variations as he installs the scheme. It will be interesting to see the results on the field in pre-season and beginning this September.
There are signs, based on PFF grades and metrics, that the poor defensive results last season were more the result of poor scheme rather than poor execution by the players. That’s not to say the Vikings’ defensive roster last season was among the best in the league, but it may well have been better than the defensive results in points and yards allowed would indicate, which were also a product of the scheme and coaching.
Hiring Brian Flores and implementing his radically different scheme from the one employed a season ago, is likely to eliminate most of the scheme-related issues from last year but could also create some new ones as no scheme is perfect, nor is any defensive roster. But there is some solid basis to believe the changes may result in significant improvement over last season, and Flores comes with a track record for dramatic defensive improvement when he came to Miami.
It could be a similar situation as Mike Zimmer’s first year (2014) with the Vikings. Zimmer brought with him his more aggressive scheme than the conservative Cover-2 Leslie Frazier had run in 2013, but the Vikings defense also lost Kevin Williams and Jared Allen from the previous season, while Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith were coming off injuries and a mediocre season for Smith from a PFF grade standpoint, while Rhodes had done okay, but not great. Captain Munnerlyn was new at slot corner, while rookie Anthony Barr took over one of the linebacker spots. Zimmer took the Vikings defense from 32nd in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed to 11th and 14th respectively in 2014.
And for the Vikings to improve and advance more than they did last year, they’ll need that sort of substantial improvement from their defense. For that, all depends on Brian Flores and his ability to engineer the kind of improvement he did in Miami in 2020.
The Vikings defense ranked 28th in points allowed last season and 31st in yards allowed. Where will they rank this season?