Brian Flores’ resume is an interesting one.
Flores spent 11 years as an assistant with future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick of the Patriots, was head coach of the Miami Dolphins for three years and last season was a defensive assistant for the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin.
But his variety of titles never included that of defensive coordinator. That changed Monday.
Twenty-four hours after the Vikings’ appeared to be in jeopardy of going 0-for-3 on their top choices to replace Ed Donatell, Flores informed the Arizona Cardinals he was going to forgo a second interview for their head coaching position and would be joining Kevin O’Connell’s staff as defensive coordinator.
Flores, who will turn 42 on Feb. 24, is betting on himself as he takes over a defense that was one of the worst in the NFL last season. Former Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and Seattle assistant Sean Desai were also candidates, but Evero decided to accept the coordinator’s job in Carolina on Sunday and Desai told the Vikings late last week that he was focused on trying to become the coordinator in Denver.
There likely were a variety of reasons for Evero and Desai’s decisions, but Minnesota’s shortcomings on defense could not be dismissed.
The Vikings won 13 games and the NFC North title this season, but finished second-to-last in the NFL in total defense, giving up 388.7 yards per game, and tied for 28th with 25.1 points given up per game. Donatell’s pass defense was 31st and the run defense was 20th.
Donatell was hired to run a 3-4 scheme that used the same principles that longtime coordinator and former Broncos coach Vic Fangio had made popular around the league. O’Connell hired Donatell in part because Fangio’s defense had caused him so many headaches as an offensive coordinator.
But Donatell spent the last portion of the season on a very hot seat and was fired following the Vikings’ 31-24 loss to the New York Giants in the opening round of the playoffs.
Donatell was the fall guy for the Vikings’ struggles on defense, but he wasn’t completely at fault. The Vikings’ personnel did not fit what Donatell wanted to do in part because of a lack of talent and an aging group. Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks will be 31 next season, cornerback Patrick Peterson, who will be a free agent next month, will be 33 and safety Harrison Smith just turned 34. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who will turn 29 this month, also is set to become a free agent.
Danielle Hunter, who moved from defensive end to a pass-rushing linebacker in the 3-4, finished with 10.5 sacks but never appeared completely comfortable in his new role. Hunter, 28, will be entering the final season of his contract and will likely be looking for a new deal.
A decision also has to be made on outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who had 8.5 sacks in his first seven games as a Viking but only 1.5 in his final 10 games. Smith will turn 31 next September.
Flores will likely have a significant role in determining who returns to the Vikings’ roster.
He also runs a 3-4 base defense, so that won’t change, but his approach will certainly be different from Donatell’s. His primary concern was not getting beat deep, something that often didn’t work, and the shell coverage often led to the Vikings giving up big chunks of yards underneath. O’Connell made it clear late in the season that he was urging Donatell to be more aggressive, but that message often seemed to get lost.
That won’t be a problem with Flores, who loves to bring pressure. The Vikings had the ninth-lowest blitz rate in the NFL this past season, sending an extra rusher only 18.9 percent of the time.
How will that change under Flores? The Dolphins had a blitz rate of 31.6 percent in his first season as coach in 2019. That went to 40.8 percent and then 39.6 percent in 2020 and 2021, respectively, before Flores was fired following a 9-8 finish. The issue is that to blitz like this the Vikings’ secondary won’t have much margin for error in coverage.
In Flores’ first season in Miami, the Dolphins went 5-11 and finished last in points allowed and 30th in yards. The following season they improved to 10-6 and were sixth in points and 20th in yards before finishing 16th in points and 15th in yards in 2021.
The Vikings would be thrilled to get to the middle of the pack in points and yards surrendered next season, even if Flores has higher goals. If that happens, Flores’ first official go-around as a defensive coordinator might be brief because he will be in line for a second opportunity as a head coach.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com