Breaking down new Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ defense
The Minnesota Vikings have a new defensive coordinator, and their schemes couldn’t be more different.
According to multiple reports, the Vikings will hire Brian Flores as their new defensive coordinator. Flores was most recently the linebackers coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Flores is more known for this time with the Miami Dolphins, though. Over three seasons, he built the Dolphins’ defense into a death star. Whether it was blitzing the life out of the Baltimore Ravens or giving Jared Goff a Sunday to forget, the Dolphins were one of football’s most discussed defenses.
How did Brian Flores do it? By building a scheme that predicates itself on being aggressive and creating havoc plays on defense.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports
Similarly to Ed Donatell, Brian Flores builds his defense on odd-man fronts.
In Miami, this mostly came with a Tite defensive front. Tite fronts have become common in college football because they can force plays to the outside, where linebackers and defensive backs can clean it up.
Tite fronts include three defensive linemen, with the two outside linemen lined up in a 4i alignment (inside shoulder of offensive tackle). The nose tackle takes a typical 0 technique alignment, meaning he aligns over the top of the center.
The Tite front
This kind of alignment allows the defensive line to plug the A-gap and B-gap, the two inside gaps. However, it leaves the C-gap (outside of the offensive tackle) unaccounted for by the defensive line. As a result, linebackers and defensive backs usually have to account for those gaps.
Although most three-man fronts will ask their defensive line to play a gap and a half, Flores prefers a one-gap defense. While this can leave gaps open, Flores compensates for that by playing with more players in the box. According to Sports Info Solutions, Flores used a 7-man or more box on 51% of his team’s snaps. For comparison, 35% of the Vikings’ snaps last season were in 7-man or more boxes. Playing a one-gap defense allows the defense to create more plays in the backfield because they move downhill in their gap from the snap.
In the secondary, Flores likes to use multiple defensive backs. Whether it’s five safeties with a box safety or three cornerbacks, multiple players in the secondary are a staple for Brian Flores. Keeping five or more defensive backs on the field allows the defense to take away more options in the passing game, especially when they play teams with significant receiving threats at tight end.
These hybrid players are important in making sure the defense runs properly. Eric Rowe and Brandon Jones are perfect examples of these hybrid players from Flores’ time in Miami. Rowe was a cornerback turned safety, who was often asked to cover tight ends. Jones, on the other hand, was an excellent pass rusher for the safety position.
Rowe is an unrestricted free agent this off-season, meaning the Vikings could add a versatile defensive back with experience in the defense. As for players currently on the roster, the Vikings may need to get creative.
Vikings V Dolphins 34
Under Donatell, the Minnesota Vikings didn’t blitz a lot. Instead, the Vikings chose to drop more players into coverage, relying on individual talent to win in pass-rush situations.
Brian Flores’ philosophy could not be any different, literally.
The Miami Dolphins were constantly at the top of the league in blitz rate (sending more than four players). In 2021, the Dolphins blitzed 38% of the time and sent four players 52% of the time, according to SIS.
Like many Vic Fangio-like defenses, the Vikings didn’t blitz a lot. The Vikings blitzed 22% of the time last season, ranking 20th in the league. That was by design, too. Donatell wanted to prevent big plays, and if you blitz, you risk allowing chunk plays through the air.
As a result, the Vikings will likely need to make some moves in the off-season to acquire players comfortable with rushing the passer. That doesn’t mean just linemen and edge rushers, either. Linebackers and safeties will also need to be comfortable sending pressure.
By now, much of the NFL has seen the film from the Dolphins’ game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2021. Flores didn’t make his game plan a secret: they were going to blitz, and they were going to blitz a lot.
The Dolphins ran mugged looks all night. Flores placed seven defenders at the line of scrimmage multiple times, with the four defensive backs multiple yards off the line of scrimmage. Such a look creates conflicts for the offensive line because they don’t know which defenders are rushing the passer. As a result, offenses will keep an extra blocker (a running back or tight end) to create a favorable matchup.
Jared Goff gets leveled and the Dolphins take the fumble back for 6! #FinsUp #LARvsMIA
— The Sports Throne (@SportsThroneHub) November 1, 2020
Still, such a play can create havoc. The defense will have a numerical advantage, regardless of what the offense calls. These looks place extra stress on the quarterback to get the ball out quickly to prevent a sack. If the defense chooses not to send all seven players, then the offense practically wastes a pass catcher for no reason.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
When a defense chooses to stack boxes and send pressure, the coverages they can run are often limited.
For Brian Flores, this means more man-to-man coverage in the backend. What kind of man coverage will vary, but often it’s cover 1 with a deep safety or cover 0, which offers no extra protection for the defensive backs.
In Miami, this culminated in a defense that consistently ranked in the top 10 for man coverage usage. In Flores’ first two seasons, the Dolphins ran man coverage over 40% of the time before running man coverage 33% of the time in 2021.
This type of coverage places added responsibility on the defensive backs. If a defense is going to send pressure, then the secondary has to hold their coverage long enough to help the pass rush get home.
This makes the Flores defense feast or famine, in a sense. Sending so much pressure can create sacks and turnovers, but it can also give up big plays through the air. Some people have criticized this type of defense, including Richard Sherman who called it a “lazy, player-dependent defense.”
Any DC that “lives”
In 0 coverage should be forced out of his job immediately or at least forced to complete an entire practice at nickel playing it. Its Lazy player dependent defense.
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 15, 2023
Take this play against the Arizona Cardinals in 2020 as an example. The Dolphins are showing a pressure look pre-snap. They’re playing man coverage on the backend, leaving their cornerbacks on “islands.” Not only does Miami fail to get to the quarterback, but Byron Jones is also beat deep, allowing a long touchdown to Christian Kirk.
#FinsUp #Cardinals #MIAvsARI #MIAvsAZ pic.twitter.com/G91fYDEVao
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) November 8, 2020
With the added responsibility placed on defensive backs, teams need physical cornerbacks who can hold their own in man coverage. The good news for the Vikings is that their cornerback room is a blank slate. Throughout the offseason, the Vikings can make progress toward finding the prototypical cornerbacks for such a defense.
If all of this feels a little different from what the Vikings ran last season, that’s because it is. The Vikings were largely a zone coverage team last season, running it 59% of the time, according to SIS.
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