The Minnesota Vikings' Hot Coverages
The Vikings are playing with Einstein's fourth dimension: space & time.
What is a blitz? You must answer that question when examining the Minnesota Vikings’ defense. Brian Flores says most pundits and analytics companies are getting it wrong. Let me explain.
Most coaches consider a blitz any off-ball defender working into a gap or off the edge post-snap. That is a ‘blitz’ from the player’s standpoint. In most cases, NFL defense uses their box ‘backers (ILBs), Nickel, or Down Safety as the primary blitzers. Teams like the Chiefs will blitz their CBs, but usually against condensed alignments (WR close to the box).
So, how do you define a blitz, the actual pressure called? PFF, for instance, considers pressure when any five defenders attack the line of scrimmage (LOS). If a defense runs a five-man front (Penny/5-1 Package?), your Blitz Rate (BR) tends to be high because you constantly send five. The Vikings fall into that category and will even align with six defenders on the line against heavy personnel packages. So, is the Vikings’ BR artificially high? Yes and no.
Related Content: Blitz vs. Pressure (video)
Head Coach Kevin O’Connell brought in Brian Flores after Ed Donatell’s defense struggled to do much in 2022. The unit finished 24th in DVOA, according to FTN, and their overall BR was 23rd at 23.1% (PFF). O’Connell wanted an aggressive style to match his offense. Flores obliged.
The chart above illustrates how novel the Vikings’ defense is. It sits alone in pressure rate, and though it ‘blitzes’ the QB at volume, the defense doesn’t generate that much pressure. But that is part of the plan. Flores has devised a system that forces the QB to process the blitz quickly and get the ball out of his hands.
The Vikings use a five or six-man defensive line to stack the offensive line. Flores will send LBs and DBs on blitzes, but the alignment doesn’t tend to bring anyone off-ball. The lack of pressure comes from the offensive playcalling. As more offenses get used to zone coverage in the NFL, the comfort level with dumping the ball off to an outlet has increased.
Flores plays into this by stacking the line of scrimmage with defenders and playing his DBs in off-zone coverage. The defensive design uses aggressiveness to its advantage by forcing offenses to counter with quick, simple throws. As Flores puts it, he is ‘reducing the menu’ of the offense. In an article with ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, he explains:
“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.”
Flores was already famous for his stacked pressures, with numerous defenders on the line of scrimmage. In his stint with Miami, Flores used a clever ‘read’ blitz to gain a free hitter on the QB, mainly using it against Empty formations or against teams that constantly tried to get the RB out into the pass concept. I call this concept ‘Tag’ because each defender will literally ‘tag’ the lineman in front of him. Flores calls this Bengal Hawk (below).
With so many defenders on the line, the offense is left to use full slide protection, leaving one edge defender free to the QB. If the O-line miscommunicates and doesn’t pick up a mugged LB, the QB has to deal with a defender right into his face. When Flores talks about forcing offenses to communicate, he references the number of defenders at the line. The pressure of so many near the ball can create issues as opponents struggle with the defensive alignment.
Flores’ time with the Steelers also led to the genesis of the defensive design in Minnesota. The aggressive pressures were already there. What Flores needed was a coverage system to back them. 3rd Down pressures are great, but what if he could manufacture this confusion on early downs? The key to success on 3rd is who a defense starts on 1st. Win early, and you generally win late.
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