Minnesota's defense broke down again last season. Brian Flores has been trying everything he can to fix it.
After ranking second-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed and giving up the fourth-most points in the league last season under defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, the Vikings turned to Flores and turned over more than half of their starting lineup.
The most noticeable shift has been a more aggressive approach to coverage and pressure. The Vikings, trying to keep their young cornerbacks from being picked apart, employed a more passive and cautious strategy under Donatell that hurt them badly down the stretch when Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith weren't able to finish their rush with a sack.
“It’s doing it smart. It’s showing different looks. It’s making the offense feel pressure, even when we’re not pressuring. So it’s going to be fun,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “As a defensive guy, you innately have an aggressive mindset, so to have a D-coordinator who aligns with that, who understands that, I think one of the big things that B-Flo brings. He gives the defense freedom to be run by the players.”
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Change is no guarantee of improvement, of course, but the new identity of this defense has made an unmistakable impact on the first two weeks of training camp.
“I’ve been wearing out my quarterback coach in meetings, asking him, ‘How do you want to block that? How do you want to block this?’” quarterback Kirk Cousins said.
Never mind that the Vikings won't face the scheme during the regular season. The offense has been getting quite the test in full-team drills.
“It’s very tough. That’s an understatement,” offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. “I am fascinated by it. I don’t know how they get it done over there."
The hallmark of the scheme, which has a basis in a 3-4 alignment but will switch to a 4-3 if the opponent calls for it, is to send pass rushers from unpredictable places and make the offense unsure about where the extra pressure will come from. The cornerbacks are taught to be as physical as possible at the line to throw the timing off for the receivers.
“I already like it,” cornerback Akayleb Evans said. “That’s how I think football should be played.”
There's simply a lot going on before and after the snap, ideally saddling the quarterback with even more to process than he already has to in a few precious seconds.
“It’s only making us better, and hopefully once we get to the real football, the things that other teams show us are going to be at least a little bit less stressful,” Phillips said.
The only returning starters are Hunter as an edge rusher, Harrison Phillips as an interior lineman, Hicks at inside linebacker and Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum at the safety spots.
“I’m just focused on this year, this group, their ability to play fast, play physical and really enjoy playing the game and having fun out there,” Flores said. “That’s really a big part of it as far as playing good defense. The good defenses that I’ve been a part of, they have a lot of fun.”
The players have been feeding off the palpable intensity and the focus on the finer details that Flores has infused into the group.
“It’s our system. He gives us the floor to control it,” Evans said, “and he makes us feel like we have a part of it. When he gives us that freedom, we all play fast.”