Brian Flores' Defense, Part 1: Versatility Is Key

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Last Monday, the Minnesota Vikings announced the hire of former Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers coach Brian Flores as their new defensive coordinator. Flores began his NFL career as a scout in the New England Patriots’ front office before transitioning to the coaching side in 2008 as a special teams assistant. His first year as a coach was also Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell‘s only year in New England as a quarterback. Flores was able to work his way up the ranks of the Patriots’ coaching staff over the next decade, eventually taking over as defensive playcaller during New England’s Super Bowl run in 2018.

After that impressive run, the Miami Dolphins hired Flores as their head coach. He coached a team with a dearth of talent to a 5-11 record before going above .500 in each of the next two seasons. However, he missed out on the playoffs by one game each time. During his time in Miami, Flores was the defensive playcaller, and he ran a defense rooted in Bill Belichick’s scheme. The Dolphins’ defense played very well under Flores, as they went from dead-last in EPA/play on defense in 2019 with a roster torn down to the studs to sixth over 2020 and 2021 combined. DVOA also shows a quality defense, as Miami’s defense ranked 11th and 10th in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Those performances would be a vast improvement from the dismal Vikings’ defense of 2022, which ranked 16th in EPA/play and 27th in DVOA.

From a schematic perspective, the Brian Flores defense is very different from the Vic Fangio style defense the Vikings ran last year. Both the Patriots and Dolphins used heavy doses of man coverage under Flores. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots ran man coverage an astounding 58% of the time in 2018, and the Dolphins were in the top five of the NFL in Man Coverage % in both 2020 and 2021. Blitzing is also a critical part of the defense, as the Dolphins led the league in 2021 with a 38% blitz rate, and were top five in 2020. This signals a vast departure from the Vikings’ 2022 defense, where they ran man coverage just 23% of the time (25th) and blitzed only 22% of the time (19th).

Defense Front and Personnel

To learn Flores’ scheme, one must first learn the personnel and positions on the defense. Flores bases out of a 3-4 front, but also uses sub packages quite often. In 2021, the Dolphins were second in the league, using their base 3-4 personnel 34% of the time, but they were also first in usage of dime (six DBs) personnel, at 31%, per Football Outsiders. They also used nickel (five DBs) at a 33% rate, so their personnel usage was split almost evenly between the three groupings.

Base 3-4 Front

First, let us look at their base front:

  • N: Nose Tackle
  • E: Defensive End. This is a true 3-4 defense end, rather than an edge rusher. Think more Dalvin Tomlinson than Danielle Hunter.
  • S/J: Sam/Jack LB. This is an edge rusher position, or a pass rushing LB. “Sam” is the strong side position and “Jack” is the weak side.
  • M: Mike LB. This is the “middle” linebacker. An off-ball LB position
  • W: Will LB. This is the weak side linebacker. An off-ball LB position
  • C: Cornerback
  • FS: Free Safety. Typically the safety who plays deep coverage. Lines up opposite the TE.
  • SS: Strong Safety. Typically the safety who plays man coverage or a hook zone. Lines up to the TE.

Here is an image of the Dolphins lining up in that 3-4 front:

Quite a bit can be learned from the body types that the Dolphins employed in this package.

  • They had two 300-plus lb. players in No. 56 Davon Godchaux (6’3″, 311 lbs.) and No. 98 Raekwon Davis (6’7″, 330 lbs.). Two players the Vikings employed last year, Harrison Phillips (6’3″, 307 lbs.) and Dalvin Tomlinson (6’3″, 325 lbs.) fit that size profile. With Tomlinson set to become a free agent, Khyiris Tonga (6’4, 338 lbs.) may be able to fill that role.
  • The Dolphins then had an interior rusher in Emmanuel Ogbah (6’4″, 275 lbs.) and two edge rushers in Shaq Lawson (6’5″, 270 lbs.) and Andrew Van Ginkel (6’4″, 242 lbs.). The 2022 Vikings also had the personnel to mirror this with Jonathan Bullard (6’3″, 290 lbs.)/James Lynch (6’4″, 295 lbs.) on the interior and Za’Darius Smith (6’4″, 272 lbs.) and Danielle Hunter (6’5″, 263 lbs.) on the edges.
  • At LB, the Dolphins put Elandon Roberts (6’1″, 238 lbs.) and Jerome Baker (6’2″, 225 lbs.), which can be matched with Eric Kendricks (6’0″, 232 lbs.) and Jordan Hicks (6’1″, 236 lbs.) or potentially Brian Asamoah (6’1″, 228 lbs.). In essence, the Vikings have the body types up front to run Brian Flores’ defense.
4-3 Under front

While the base of the Flores defense is a 3-4 front, he also incorporates some 4-3 fronts. As he mentioned in his introductory press conference on Wednesday, Flores will adjust his gameplan to the opponent he is playing. Here is a diagram of the 4-3 Under front, which Flores incorporated during his time in Miami:

As you can see, the alignment is very similar to the 3-4 Under look above. The difference is subtle, and lies in where the players line up in relation to the offense linemen. Refer at the image below:

You can see that the Dolphins have the same personnel in, with Godchaux at NT, Davis at DT, Ogbah at DE, Lawson at DE, and Van Ginkel at Sam. However, they are in different positions compared to the offensive linemen they are lined up against. In the first picture, Godchaux is straight up on the center in what is known as a 0 technique (0t for short). In the second, he is in a 1t, or shade, lined up over the center’s shoulder. Opposite him on the interior is Davis, who is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard. This is known as a 3t, and is the only alignment that is the same for both plays (Davis is on the left in the first picture, and on the right in the second).

Ogbah also switches sides in the two pictures, but he as moved his alignment from a 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) to a 5t (outside shoulder of the tackle). Van Ginkel and Lawson are both aligned out wide, but look at where Lawson is in the first picture compared to where Van Ginkel is in the second. The ball is on the opposite hash, and in the first picture Lawson is in a 7t, far outside the tackle. In the second picture, Van Ginkel is even wider, outside the hash marks entirely. This is a 9t. Below is a handy chart from PFF showing the different DL techniques.

Sub Front

The scheme has different terms for players when they substitute into nickel or dime personnel. In particular, the names for LBs change. Here is an example of a dime package, with six DBs:

  • T: Tackle, a defensive tackle. Similar to the End in base defense.
  • E: End, an edge rusher-type. Similar to the Sam/Jack in base defense.
  • Mc: Mac, an off-ball LB. The equivalent to the Mike.
  • B: Buck, an off-ball LB. The equivalent of the Will.
  • *: Star, a nickel CB.
  • $: Money, a dime defensive back, either a CB or S. Often needs to be capable of playing in the box.

Here is the Dolphins using a very similar front:

If you compare the still to the play diagram above, you can see that there are a couple of slight differences: the Mac, No. 53 Kyle Van Noy, is lined up at Nose while the N, No. 94 Christian Wilkins, is lined up at 3t outside the guard. Similarly, No. 90 Shaq Lawson and No. 55 Jerome Baker’s positions are swapped. This is part of the beauty of Flores’ defense: they teach all of the positions in the front as “Xs on a chalkboard,” meaning that every player knows the rules for the position that they line up in. This is critical when it comes to defensive line exchanges, also known as stunts, that Flores likes to run in pressure looks like the front above. Teaching all of the players the same rules enables the defense to give the offense a number of different looks, but call the same play. Kevin O’Connell’s offense operates on the same principle of the “illusion of complexity.”

How does the Vikings’ Personnel Fit Flores’ Scheme?

One of Flores’ better traits is his ability to adapt his scheme to the personnel he has. In the first picture above, he has two very different edge rusher bodies (Lawson has about 30 lbs. on Van Ginkel), and he knows how to use them to their strengths. He would ask Van Ginkel to take on more aggressive coverage concepts than he would Lawson. Per PFF, Van Ginkel played 71 snaps in coverage in 2020, while Lawson played just 17. In 2021, he drafted an edge rusher in Jaelen Phillips, who has very similar dimensions and athleticism to Danielle Hunter, in the first round, and had a specific role for him that was unique from Van Ginkel and Lawson’s. Flores has also worked with players like Trey Flowers in the past, a big-bodied, heavy handed edge rusher who often reduced down inside. Za’Darius Smith could be very useful in that role.

On the interior of the defensive line, the Vikings have the run stuffing interior players that Flores likes to have. Even with Dalvin Tomlinson set to be a free agent, Harrison Phillips and Khyiris Tonga should fit well in this scheme. What the team is lacking is a pass rushing threat from the interior. Jonathan Bullard (also an FA, but likely significantly less expensive than Tomlinson) and James Lynch have the body type, and played admirably last year, but lack the pass rushing juice that a player like Ogbah provides. Za’Darius may be able to help with that issue, but I’d expect another addition at this role.

At the linebacker position, the Vikings don’t have many players that fit previous Flores archetypes. Patriots great Dont’a Hightower was a unique player in this era of football at 6’5″, 260 lbs. Flores was unable to replicate him on the Dolphins, so he used a run thumper in Elandon Roberts in tandem with a better coverage player in Jerome Baker. This combination could work well if the Vikings use Brian Asamoah, who is a terrific downhill athlete and Eric Kendricks, a great coverage player, in tandem, but Asamoah’s talent seems wasted in that role.

Flores also typically employs undersized edge rusher/linebacker hybrids, like Van Ginkel and Van Noy mentioned above. The Vikings do not have a player with this physical profile, so it will be interesting to see if they bring one in. Notably, the Dolphins did move on from Van Noy prior to the 2021 season, and Van Ginkel was their only major piece remaining that met that archetype.

In the secondary, Flores also has experience working with diverse body types, as he coached Eric Rowe, a hybrid S/CB. In New England, he featured Devin McCourty, one of the best deep safeties of the generation, and Patrick Chung, who was used as a man coverage TE eraser. In 2021, he drafted Jevon Holland, a versatile safety who he played both in the box and deep, sometimes asking him to drop to a deep zone all the way from the line of scrimmage, which his athleticism enabled him to do.

This sounds like a great role for Lewis Cine. Flores should also help Harrison Smith thrive, as he will be willing to use him where he does best: in the box and as a blitz threat. Flores had Holland blitz 65 times in 2021, while Donatell’s scheme ask Smith to blitz a paltry 14 times, a far cry from 43 pass rush snaps in 2021 under former HC Mike Zimmer. The Flores defense asks cornerbacks to primarily be man-coverage players. The Vikings currently only have three CBs from last year on the roster for 2023: Andrew Booth Jr., Akayleb Evans, and Cameron Dantzler. I believe both Booth and Evans have the traits to be man coverage corners, but more additions will be necessary to complete the group.

In the next installment of this series, we will discuss his pass-rush schemes and run fits along the defensive front.

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