EAGAN, Minn. -- Brian Flores joined the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator, he said at the time, because of the opportunity he saw for his own personal and professional growth. Only now are we finding out what he meant.
In his first season with the Vikings, Flores has achieved a rare feat: concocting a new NFL scheme with almost no one noticing. Flores revealed in a recent ESPN interview that he incorporated a version of the defense popularized at the college level by Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, one that combines a six-man front with versions of zone coverage behind it.
NFL teams historically use man coverage behind loaded fronts, and no one ESPN reached out to could remember a defense that consistently did otherwise. The Vikings have capitalized on those unconventional foundations, added some of Flores' exotic blitz theories and built one of the league's most effective groups. Since the start of Week 4, when some rough early-season moments required significant fine-tuning, Flores' defense has ranked as a top 5 defense, coinciding with the team winning six of their last nine games.
"You're programmed to think that there's these buckets of defenses," safety Harrison Smith said. "Everybody has their own styles, but it's like you're only allowed to do certain things with 11 guys, and [Flores' scheme] kind of breaks that in some senses. The rules of the game are just ingrained in you, even though they're not rules. It's just what we've all been brainwashed into thinking over the years. It turns out you can do more, and that's been really fun to see."
The scheme has fooled offenses, sometimes to comic levels. During a game last month in Atlanta, Vikings safety Josh Metellus heard a Falcons coach yelling at him. Over and over, the coach told Metellus he had decoded the Vikings' scheme and knew what was coming.
"He was completely wrong every time he said it," Metellus said. "Nobody understands what we're doing."
Defensive pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach Daronte Jones, meanwhile, has suppressed smiles during pregame warmups when approached by opposing coaches. Several of them, Jones said, have offered sympathy for the amount of man coverage the Vikings had seemingly asked their defensive backs to play.
"And the truth," Jones said, "is that we're really not. Flo's mind just works differently."
The Vikings lead the NFL in frequency of zone coverage (69%), according to ESPN Stats & Information. They have also used their six-man front in ways rarely seen at the NFL level. Flores' defense has the league's highest rates -- by a wide margin -- in two philosophical opposites: blitzes and three-man rushes. They have more than twice as many six-man rushes as the next-most aggressive team, largely because Metellus and Smith have rushed the passer more than six times the NFL average for defensive backs, and they have utilized personnel groupings that complicate the blocking schemes of offenses and reduce the "menu" of plays or formations they can use.
This novel approach required a leap of faith from coach Kevin O'Connell, whose otherwise successful 2022 debut with the Vikings was tarnished by a passive defensive approach that former coordinator Ed Donatell refused to adjust. Flores hadn't yet decided on the specifics of his scheme when O'Connell hired him Feb. 6, but the two agreed they wanted an exceptionally aggressive style.
"I would have had more hesitation if it wasn't Flo and his staff," O'Connell said, "and knowing the type of dialogue, not only with his staff but him and I, would have to get through a lot of layers of ultimately what our defense would be. What I wanted to do is make sure I communicated to him: 'I have confidence in you, I've got belief in you, and these players will as well.'"
Sitting in the Vikings' practice facility on a fall afternoon, Flores waved off grand pronouncements about this season, in the way gourmet chefs might claim a new dish is just something they threw together. While the specifics of his approach have changed from earlier stops in his career, the tenets have not.
"It's always: What do we think is going to create some angst for the offense and will force some communication by them?" he said. "They're trying to get 11 guys to communicate. It only takes one [mistake] to cut somebody [on defense] loose. We just try to create as much of that as possible."
IN FIVE PREVIOUS seasons as a defensive playcaller -- two as a top assistant with the New England Patriots and three as the Miami Dolphins' head coach --Flores built a track record. His defenses ranked in the top 10 in NFL blitz rate over that period, behind which he predominantly used man coverage schemes.
His thoughts began to shift, however, during the year he spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022 as their senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach. The Steelers share a practice facility with the University of Pittsburgh, and Flores said he frequently visited with Pitt assistant coach Tiquan Underwood. The pair watched film together, and Flores said he "kind of got enamored" with a portion of Narduzzi's defense that had been in use since Narduzzi took over as the defensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio) in 2003.
It began as a way to stop the run with six-man run pressures, and then to overwhelm quarterbacks if they threw against it. The front turns into a blitz in those situations, with coverages -- known as "three under, two deep" or "two under, three deep" -- that college quarterbacks couldn't often beat. In an interview with ESPN, Narduzzi called it a "changeup" that "has been kind of our equalizer" over the years.
"If you're looking at it on paper," Narduzzi said, "you're saying it's unsound. But if you play it the right way, and understand the why and what we're trying to do, you understand why we use it."
It was so unusual, Narduzzi said, that some college coaches have barred their defensive coaches from using it. When he worked as a linebackers coach at Northern Illinois, then-coach Joe Novak "wouldn't let me do it," Narduzzi said. Later, Georgia coach Kirby Smart told Narduzzi that Alabama coach Nick Saban turned away the ideas when Smart had been the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator.
But when Flores began discussing the concepts with his Vikings staff, he had an ally in Jones, the passing game coordinator who had sampled it when he was LSU's defensive coordinator in 2021.
"It looks like the secondary is just by themselves," Jones said. "There's no post safety. There's no Cover-2. It's looks like it's just one-on-one everywhere. But it's not. It's an illusion."
The Vikings' staff held the nature of the concepts largely in secret. Veteran players like Smith, linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive lineman Harrison Phillips understood the unusual nature of what the team was installing during the offseason, and Smith said: "It sounded kind of wild when I first heard it."
But none of them realized it was largely unprecedented in the NFL. Narduzzi himself was surprised to learn from a reporter that a signature part of his scheme had migrated to the pro level, and even two former Pitt players now with the Vikings -- right tackle Brian O'Neill and linebacker Pat Jones II -- said they didn't make the connection.
The scheme manifested itself in historic blitz rates, defined as using five or more pass-rushers on a dropback, during the early part of the season. The Vikings' blitz rate of 63% after Week 3 was the highest for a team at that point since ESPN began tracking it in 2006. But the Vikings had also become only the fifth team in NFL history to allow at least 259 rushing yards (Week 2 to the Philadelphia Eagles) and 445 passing yards (Week 3 to the Los Angeles Chargers) in consecutive weeks.
The defensive staff introduced a series of adjustments that included a significant drop in schemed pressures. Since Week 4, the Vikings have blitzed 41.2% of the time -- still the most in the NFL but enough to mix in other concepts. Among others, Flores has leaned into is the idea of what he called "max pressure or max coverage."
The Vikings have used a six-man rush on 115 dropbacks this season, nearly three times as many as the next highest team and five times the NFL average. But they also have used a three-man rush, with eight players dropping into coverage, on an NFL-high 102 dropbacks, twice as many as any other NFL team. When using the "drop 8" concept, as it's called, the Vikings have netted five sacks and three interceptions.
"Sometimes the implied threat of it is just as good as the pressure itself," assistant head coach Mike Pettine said. "I think Flo's in a good place there. Part of it was trying to figure out who we were and maybe who we weren't. ... I think we found an identity and honed in on an area of the package that we knew was causing teams problems. Some of the things that we're doing has limited what some offenses have done. We've forced teams to change who they are, which is a good thing."
One example: In Week 8, Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love took only three of 62 snaps from under center after lining up there on 31% of his snaps in Weeks 1-7, largely to give himself more distance from the Vikings' presumed pressure.
"It comes down to what are you willing to do and how many are you willing to send?" Smith said. "When you're willing to do whatever, that's kind of a weapon in itself."
FLORES HAS UNDOUBTEDLY enhanced his résumé as the NFL moves closer to hiring season for its next class of head coaches. When and if he secures an interview, he'll likely have to address his ongoing lawsuit against the NFL and multiple teams alleging discrimination regarding previous interviews and his firing by the Dolphins. But there should be few concerns about his on-field work after this season, during which he has demonstrated not only schematic innovation but clear results in elevating the performance of multiple veterans.
Metellus has grown from a special teams player to a full-time defensive playmaker who has played 96% of the defensive snaps since the start of Week 4. Hicks was having a Pro Bowl caliber season, Flores said, before going on injured reserve in Week 10 with a right leg injury. Linebackers Danielle Hunter (13.5 sacks) and D.J. Wonnum (6.0 sacks) are having career years.
PITT PICK SIX! PITT PICK SIX!— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) November 12, 2022
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Even Phillips, who is playing a role that essentially asks him to be a placeholder rather than a playmaker, has logged 74% of the defensive snaps, by far the highest percentage of his six-year career.
"My initial thoughts selfishly were not super high about this," Phillips said. "It was like, 'Dang, the way it's being described is you're an edge setter, you're a cutback player. It seemed like there was not going to be a lot of production through the system. But then I saw the problems it was giving our offense in [spring and summer practices] ... and so I thought we were really on to something, and obviously it's been kicking ass."
In doing so, Flores has focused on players rather than positions. Metellus is listed as a safety but has played a hybrid linebacker role. He has rushed on 79 dropbacks, the most by a defensive back in the NFL. The next-highest is Smith (61), who has already rushed more often than in any full season of his career. In obvious passing downs, meanwhile, Flores often uses four linebackers across the line of scrimmage without a single traditional defensive lineman.
"I see spots on the field," Flores said. "I don't necessarily see, 'That's got to be a D-lineman or that's got to be a linebacker.' It doesn't necessarily have to be a traditional defensive tackle or a traditional linebacker. Offensively, they look at 'traditional' as four down linemen, or five. When you've got a guy who's a safety in a linebacker spot, the receiver doesn't know if he's supposed to go block the safety that's down in the box or the linemen climbing up to him. It creates some confusion."
Pettine, smiling but with a serious tone, said the Vikings' goal is to ensure the opposing coaches are "not home in time for dinner and not home in time to put their kids to bed."
Pettine added: "They're spending a lot of extra time at game plan meetings, meetings with the players, practice time for some things we might run 10 times in a game or we might not run at all. I always feel that's like body punches. You never know how that is going to affect a team. But you know they aren't going to be able to practice some of their other core stuff because they are going to have to spend time on our stuff."
The process of facing the Vikings, Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton joked in Week 11, was to spend six hours watching film, "then go get another coffee and you start again."
"That's the coolest part about this whole thing," O'Connell said. "It's just unique and different. It's hard to know how to move the football consistently when the threat of all this can happen. And [Flores'] ability to morph all of that has been really cool. But at the end of the day you have to make it learnable, coachable, likeable for your players, and that's what's been really cool to watch come to life."