I’m not sure what kind of arcane pact Brian Flores made with whatever malevolent football gods are in charge of toying with the hearts of Minnesota Vikings fans, but whatever it is, it’s working.
With the Minnesota Vikings in their Week 13 bye week, it’s worth looking back to where we were last season and reflecting on how we got here, because it’s been a pretty wild ride.
Somehow, despite giving the Jets room to take whatever they wanted on offense at their leisure, Minnesota managed to hold them to only 22 points. That was thanks largely to the backup quarterback struggling to have an average red-zone performance that day. If Mike White’s Jets had managed to be even middling in the red zone, the 10-2 Vikings might have had an especially embarrassing stumble.
But that was the identity of the 2022 Vikings defense. It was a unit that played soft, scared, and occasionally had a few quality players overcome the schematic struggles to make just enough plays to let the offense steal another one-score victory. It was a defense built to bend but don’t break that eventually broke. That’s what makes this transformation so incredible.
Imagine that I had come to you after that Jets game and offered insight into the future. The 2023 season would start 1-4, lose Justin Jefferson for six weeks, lose Kirk Cousins for the year, and have the Vikings tied for 31st in the league in turnover differential. What would have been your record prediction without saying a word about the defense? Two wins? Three, maybe?
But rather than jockeying for a top-five draft pick, this Vikings team is the sixth seed with a clear path to the playoffs. And how they got here hasn’t been good fumble luck or elite offense. Flores’ defensive wizardry has led the charge.
Minnesota’s defense was 31st in yards allowed, 26th in points allowed, and second in passing yards allowed last season. It made quarterbacks like Mike White and Mac Jones look like Peyton Manning. In the first year of Flores’ defense, Minnesota is tied for eighth in points per game and 12th in yards per game allowed. That’s an impressive improvement, especially considering the growing pains this team experienced as it adjusted to the new identity at the beginning of the season.
As improved as those numbers are, the defense is playing even better now than the stats would lead you to believe.
Flores has accomplished this by being the opposite of the two-high Donatell shell we saw opponents routinely carve up last season. We’ve watched Minnesota’s massive pendulum swing on defense in awe. Flores will send the house on one play and drop eight into coverage on the next.
The Vikings lead the league in blitzes of six-plus defenders. Still, Flores isn’t just clicking the first blitz Madden pulls up for you. He masters feeling out and manipulating the opposing offense’s blocking scheme. Flores uses stunts and pressure to spring a free rusher at the quarterback, and it works more often than not.
However, Flores is doing it with essentially the same personnel, which makes the defense’s transformation all the more remarkable. There have been a few key additions in undrafted phenom Ivan Pace Jr. and cornerback Byron Murphy. Outside of that, though, there are many familiar faces from last year. But the way Flores has developed and utilized these players’ skill sets has enabled some pedestrian defenders to become household names.
Josh Metellus is no longer the late-round pick battling to stay on the depth chart; he’s playing like a cornerstone of this team. As Brian Baldinger says in the clip above, Metellus is playing all over the field as a safety, linebacker, and pass rusher — and he’s repeatedly making plays.
Cam Bynum is in the middle of his best season as a pro. Akayleb Evans has had weeks where he looked like the best corner on the team. And Danielle Hunter’s resurgence to become the NFL’s sack leader is no coincidence, either. These guys are thriving in ways we haven’t seen since Mike Zimmer’s best days. It’s been another branch of the Bill Parcells coaching tree that’s gotten that level of play out of them.
At the beginning of the season, Flores’ aggressive playcalling felt like a coordinator trying to get by with subpar talent behind exotic playcalling. But now it feels like a defensive unit that’s developing the skill sets to not only “get by” but succeed. Flores calls games with aggression and attitude, and his players bring the same into every tackle.
The offense will need some answers coming out of the bye week for how they can respond for the rest of the season. On the other hand, Flores has earned full confidence. I can’t wait for him to get in the lab and cook up something special for December.