The Minnesota Vikings earned the “fraud” label throughout a wild 2022 season. A 13-4 record masked all kinds of issues, particularly on the defensive side. Despite heroics from Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson on the offensive side of the ball, Minnesota did not win a playoff game.
A New York Giants team led by Daniel Jones – yes, the same Daniel Jones who threw only two touchdowns to six interceptions and four fumbles before a season-ending injury this year – torched Minnesota’s defense that Ed Donatell coordinated. Jones threw for over 300 yards and ran for another 76 more without a turnover.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell recognized a change was needed. But he didn’t just make a change. He flipped the script entirely.
O’Connell hired Brian Flores, who has brought a completely new attitude and philosophy to the Vikings defense. It has been the catalyst to a wild five-game winning streak, and there’s no sign of this defense slowing down.
Flores’ aggressive nature has been effective, carrying what was perceived as a deteriorating Vikings defense toward the top of the NFL ranks in many important categories. Minnesota finished the 2022 season 29th in yards per play allowed, 24th in defensive DVOA, 21st in EPA (expected points added) per play allowed, and 27th in explosive play rate allowed.
Meanwhile, the 2023 Vikings defense ranks 8th in yards per play allowed, 8th in defensive DVOA, 11th in EPA per play allowed, and 4th in explosive play rate allowed.
Donatell’s defensive philosophy appeared to be predicated on waiting for the opposing team to make the mistakes or trusting the personnel to make a play. According to TruMedia, Donatell used a standard four-man rush on 76% of snaps a season ago, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL.
In 2023, Flores has employed a much more aggressive and creative approach, utilizing a wide range of different pre-snap looks, disguises, and blitzes. Flores only uses a four-man rush 30% of the time.
Benjamin Solak covers the NFL for The Ringer. He posted this graphic before Minnesota’s Week 10 win over the New Orleans Saints, showing just how radical Flores’ approach is.
For the fans watching Minnesota’s defense in the stadium or at home, it’s a completely different experience from a season ago. Instead of a conservative, keep-everything-in-front-of-you style of play, the Vikings are the aggressors in almost every crucial situation.
In basketball terms, it’s like the Vikings have shifted from primarily settling into a soft 2-3 zone to now employing a continuous rotation of different full-court traps, full-court presses, half-court traps, box-and-ones, and man-to-man. Flores is forcing the opposing offense to adjust to what he throws at them, and it felt like that was never the case in 2022.
Take this clip from ESPN analyst Mina Kimes, for instance. This wrinkle features a late, pre-snap adjustment in which Harrison Phillips moves over the Saints center. This forces the New Orleans offensive line to adjust their protection, and running back Jamaal Williams doesn’t recognize the blitzing Josh Metellus in time. The result is quick pressure and an incompletion.
However, this isn’t to say Flores can’t adjust when needed or when a game plan may call for it. The win against New Orleans is an example. He clearly saw something in the Saints offense that suggested he could be better off toning down the blitz rate. Perhaps it was Derek Carr’s effectiveness against the blitz.
Whatever it was, the Vikings registered their lowest blitz rate of the season against the Saints at only 21%. As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert notes, Minnesota was able to generate some big plays without a blitz.
From a national audience perspective, the discussion around the Vikings is focused on the quarterback position. Cousins was playing fantastic football before the unfortunate season-ending injury, and the newly-acquired Josh Dobbs has stepped in beautifully in the two weeks he’s been in Minnesota. O’Connell has been leading the offense to improbable success.
But the defensive turnaround led by Flores might be the engine powering this Vikings winning streak. Almost every member of the defense is enjoying a career season with Flores calling the defense. Danielle Hunter shares the lead for sacks. Harrison Smith is lining up all over the field again as he did during the Zimmer era, his versatility making an impact. Metellus has emerged into a leader as a hybrid safety and linebacker who can line up anywhere. Camryn Bynum has been trusted with the ball-hawking role early and often, and he has delivered.
The list goes on and on. For both the team and the individual, Flores’ unique approach has paid dividends. And now, the combination of Flores’ dynamic defense and O’Connell’s creative offense has Minnesota among the most dangerous teams in the NFL — and is much better equipped for postseason success than a season ago.