The Flores Flaw? How to Score on the Vikings’ Defense

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Pulling apart recent games in an effort to find a flaw with the Vikings’ defense is a fairly foolish task. Last season’s horribly drab defense that looked completed disinterested in slowing down the offense has become an above-average group, a metamorphosis that’s largely the result of Mr. Brian Flores.

Is there a Flores flaw, though? When teams turn on the tape from recent weeks, what are they going to see when it comes to vulnerabilities?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (5) celebrates his interception with his team against the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Again, Minnesota’s defense has legitimately been good (especially recently, where the unit could be described as being very good). Danielle Hunter is operating at an All-Pro level and the safety trio has been excellent. Now toss in some growth from Akayleb Evans, a rapid ascension from Ivan Pace, a defensive line that’s exceeding expectations, and a rejuvenated Jordan Hicks (who is now on the IR due to his shin injury). The combination of all of that alongside a brilliant playcaller and architect has resulted in a group that’s allowing an average of 20.9 points against per game (14th).

Even still, there’s something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks: size to the outside of the field. Look for the Broncos to try to exploit size mismatches toward the sidelines.

Brian Flores and the Rejuvenated Vikings Defense

In Atlanta, the Falcons found some success by getting their tight ends to the flats. The mismatch existed due to a size and strength advantage for Atlanta’s playmakers.

Nov 5, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Van Jefferson (15) tries to make a catch over Minnesota Vikings cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon (5) and Byron Murphy Jr. (7) on the final play of the game during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

On 1st & 15 midway through the 3rd quarter, Taylor Heinicke tossed a short pass to TE Jonnu Smith in the flats. Smith exploded for a 60-yard score, largely due to his offensive linemen getting out ahead of him to make the screen work. Take a look:

In a battle between a pair of defensive backs — Josh Metellus and Byron Murphy, I believe — alongside several o-linemen and a ball carrier who stands at 6’3″, 248, the end result is going to be a loss for the Vikings (at least on that particular play).

And, for whatever it’s worth, Smith finished the game as Atlanta’s top pass catcher, turning 6 targets into 5 catches and 100 yards. The next top receiver for Atlanta was Kyle Pitts, the other tight end in Atlanta (who stands at 6’6″, 246). He finished his day with 5 targets for 4 catches and 56 yards. Again, think size and muscle.

Dec 26, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) catches a pass behind Detroit Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu (26) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota most often leans on a hearty helping of defensive backs. Very commonly, Jordan Hicks has been the only linebacker on the field. Meanwhile, the defense is either in nickel or dime, personnel packages that sacrifice size in favor of agility and quickness (alongside no shortage of versatility).

The team is now venturing into a four-week stretch without Hicks, meaning Ivan Pace (who is a bit smaller than Hicks) will now take over as the primary linebacker. Can teams find some success playing bully ball?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 23, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (40) and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Dean Lowry (94) react after a fumble recovery against the San Francisco 49ers during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, New Orleans picked up a pair of touchdowns on contested catches in the endzone. In each instance, Byron Murphy — who is 5’11”, 190 — found himself in good position. The issue was simply that he got outmuscled by larger receivers.

Chris Olave — 6’0″, 187 pounds — and A.T. Perry — 6’5″, 205 — were the successful recipients of Jameis Winston touchdown passes. Tossing the ball up to a receiver with length and physicality is an option against the Vikings. It’s not a surefire way of finding success, and yet it’s one that allowed the Saints to make a game of the Week 10 showdown.

Oct 30, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Chris Olave (12) is tackled by Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26) during the first half at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Bulldozing the Vikings’ defense up the middle has proven to be quite difficult. Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard are having excellent seasons, proving capable of getting penetration to pickup TFLs in huge moments.

More successful, at least recently, has been some bully ball along the outside. Leaning on larger receivers to pull off contested catches and/or finding creative ways to get tight ends to the flats has been something that recent opponents have leaned on against Minnesota’s defense. Keep an eye on how Sean Payton deploys his personnel in an attempt to gain an edge.

Kickoff will take place at 7:20 p.m. CST on Sunday.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.