Vikings

What's the Next Step For Brian Flores and the Vikings Defense?

Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

For a short period of time, the Minnesota Vikings and their fans had to wrestle with the possibility that they could lose Brian Flores as their defensive coordinator. Though it always seemed to be a longshot given his impending legislation against the league, his ability to turn Minnesota’s bottom-five defense into a top-five unit was beyond impressive.

But the end of the season was not kind to the Vikings defense. As they struggled with figuring out their quarterback situation, their defense also gave up first down after first down and explosive plays at an alarming rate.

After an eight-game stretch where the Vikings only allowed 15 points per game, with only one team scoring more than 21 points, they gave up an average of 30 points in their final four games and at least 27 in all of them. That is to say, they were one of the three worst teams in the NFL in the final month of the regular season.

The change is significant. But what’s more interesting than the way the Vikings’ defense was a bit different in the first three weeks, before they found their legs, is the specific way they failed near the end of the season.

In the final frame, the Vikings were much better about avoiding explosive plays than they were at the beginning of the season. Their biggest issue is that they gave up consistent drives and allowed defenses to gain first downs.

While the early defense suffered from pure matchup problems – their cornerbacks couldn’t win in man coverage and had issues handling speed – the latter defense looked like they had solved it.

Trouble was, the defense’s mystery had been vanished, replaced by a Rubik’s Cube with six solid-colored sides. Instead of taking their chances on deep shots, offenses saw openings that gave them consistent progress. And they used that progress to create red zone trips and touchdowns.

That also tells us that the issue wasn’t necessarily the personnel so much as the scheme. Personnel mismatches would generally lead to more explosives as teams hunt them out. Instead, Minnesota’s opponents found voids in the coverage, and the Vikings’ unusual combination of blitz and undermanned zones stopped working.

But that difference is academic. The global issue was personnel; it just so happened that the specific in-game problems were the product of scheme exploits. However, the scheme problem cannot be solved without a change in personnel because the scheme emerged as a product of Minnesota’s talent deficiency on defense.

All that is to say that the Vikings weren’t good enough to run a normal defense, so they had to invent a new one. And the shine wore off.

That means that the injury bug that bit them near the end of the season – which notably resulted in the absence of Byron Murphy Jr. – doesn’t tell the entire story. The Vikings need to add personnel that increases their flexibility.

Flexibility means more than having players capable of performing multiple tasks; one would think that players like Ivan Pace Jr. and Josh Metellus offer that. It primarily means the ability to run multiple, cohesive schemes.

That requires cornerbacks who can cover in multiple ways. While they did well in limited zone assignments, they need defenders who can win in press- and off-man coverage in addition to the off-zone coverage they ran.

PFF charted Minnesota cornerbacks with very low man-coverage rates. Murphy only participated in man-coverage assignments in 19.5% of his coverage snaps. That wasn’t the lowest in the NFL, but it was pretty low – only six teams had lower cornerback man-coverage participation rates.

In the instances they ran man coverage, they performed poorly. In total, PFF gave the Vikings a 58.4 coverage grade in man coverage, 21st in the NFL. But the cornerbacks ranked dead last, with a man-coverage grade of 41.6.

While it would help to re-sign Danielle Hunter and add another edge rusher to complement the pressure a front four can produce, Minnesota’s inability to disguise coverage will always be an Achilles heel, with or without pressure.

Harrison Smith‘s impending retirement might encourage fans to look at safety, but there’s no guarantee that the Vikings will continue to work in three-safety looks as a big part of their defense. That was a necessity last year, but it doesn’t have to be the norm going forward. Metellus and Camryn Bynum can be an effective pair for a defense with more traditional looks.

On top of the Vikings-specific evidence we have on the importance of the cornerback position and how their scheme has developed, there is also the general evidence we’ve found that cornerbacks are paramount.

Research has shown the significance of the cornerback position to winning. Cornerback performance slots just behind quarterback and receiver in impact on wins. Given the injury rates at the position and the injury-prone players the Vikings have added at cornerback, it particularly behooves the team to add there.

The good news for the Vikings is that there are about six different cornerbacks who have generally gone in the first round in early mock drafts and have earned consistent top-32 rankings in big boards.

The 2024 class is strong in zone-coverage corners, but many possess the athletic traits and instincts to develop man-coverage skills. It would undoubtedly give the Vikings the latitude on the back end to run a variety of coverages, which would be necessary for them to maintain effective coverage disguises.

They could also secure strong man-coverage corners in free agency. Short-term veteran solutions include Steven Nelson and Stephon Gilmore, while younger players include Jaylon Johnson. In between those extremes is someone potentially cheaper in Isaac Yiadom.

Myles Bryant (New England Patriots) or Kendall Fuller (Washington Commanders) could also be slick under-the-radar options.

There might be reason to worry about whether Brian Flores was a one-trick pony last year. For now, those concerns seem overblown. Flores tried a radical experiment, and it mostly worked. But he didn’t come to Minnesota because he had one good idea. He has a seasoned history of calling defenses. He turned the Miami Dolphins’ defense around as a head coach and also organized some of the best defenses the league had seen for the New England Patriots.

Those schemes were heavy on man coverage, though it’s clear by now he doesn’t rely on that. Still, that’s been where he’s best. Cornerback is a priority for the defense, not pass rush.

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