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Lunchbreak: Vikings Trying to Return Defensive Efficiency to Midseason Success Level

EAGAN, Minn. – It's been a turbulent season for Minnesota (7-9), which opened 1-4 before winning five consecutive contests but has since gone 1-5.

The Vikings defense under coordinator Brian Flores surprised people and helped he a particularly strong stretch from Weeks 4-14. ESPN reporter Kevin Seifert highlighted why building on what Flores started this season is key for the Vikings.

The story of the Minnesota Vikings 2023 season has been told largely through the lens of their uncertainty at quarterback. On Wednesday, in fact, coach Kevin O'Connell announced his fifth change [to the starter] since Kirk Cousins ruptured his right Achilles tendon Oct. 29.

And yet there is a remarkably straight line running through their defense as well, one that will merit fair scrutiny of their personnel distribution this offseason. The Vikings defensive efficiency rankings, a per-play measure of the extent to which the defense has contributed to scoring margins, have directly reflected the team's winning percentage:

  • Weeks 1-3: No. 27 in NFL (0-3)
  • Weeks 4-14: No. 1 in NFL (7-3)
  • Weeks 15-17 No. 32 in NFL (0-3)

Flores installed a unique scheme that elevated the group for much of the season, but injuries and personnel shortcomings have limited the menu of adjustments during this recent ebb. Barring an influx of new talent and significant development among incumbents, Flores could face a similar challenge in 2024.

Like any NFL team, uncertainty awaits this offseason. But Flores isn't looking that far ahead. On Wednesday he said he's focused on the season finale at Detroit. He purposely spoke without finality considering the Vikings playoff chances are still technically alive.

Instead, Flores explained that this season has been one of his most rewarding of his nearly 20-year coaching career. He plans on getting the Vikings defense back on track on Sunday.

Flores said last week his goal has been to "try to get back" to the way the defense played in the middle of the season. He did not blame injuries or personnel issues but said the top priority at this point is "really, really homing in on being precise and detailed on those fundamentals."

Flores' scheme combined his passion for front-end pressure with a college-based zone coverage, a combination that had never been used with such frequency at the pro level. The Vikings lead the NFL with a blitz rate of 47.9 percent, the 10th-highest for any team through 17 weeks since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking it in 2006, and rank second in frequency of zone coverage (69.4 percent).

The approach was especially fitting for a team that entered the season with one proven pass rusher, [outside] linebacker Danielle Hunter, and an overhauled group of cornerbacks who were untested in the man coverages that typically support high-blitz schemes. Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator of the 2006 New York Jets team that had the highest blitz rate (52.4 percent) in ESPN's recorded range, said it was natural to seek supplemental pass rush and try to limit the time that the secondary was asked to be in coverage.

Click here to read the rest of ESPN's story on Flores and the Vikings defense.

The Athletic highlights key positions of need for the Vikings

Whether the Vikings season ends on Sunday or not, offseason plans are already in motion. From the draft and through free agency, teams aggressively and strategically prepare for the future year-round. Then the heavy lifting begins in the months between their season ending and training camp.

The Athletic's Alec Lewis examined several position groups he thinks the Vikings should strive to improve this offseason. Lewis flagged six position groups (interior defensive line, edge rusher, cornerback, off-ball linebacker, interior offensive line, quarterback) as the areas he thinks the Vikings should place their focus.

Here is what he said about the first two groups:

Interior defensive line

Why this is a need: If you're reading this, you've likely watched the games. And if you've watched the games, you likely know the answer. Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard have played valiantly, but the Vikings still rank 27th in defensive success rate against the run. They chose not to match Cleveland's offer for Dalvin Tomlinson last offseason, and the absence shows. Bullard will be a free agent. Phillips is under contract.

Edge rusher

Why this is a need: The only experienced Vikings edge rusher under contract for 2024 is Pat Jones II. [Four]-time Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter is set to become a free agent. So are the injury-riddled Marcus Davenport and D.J. Wonnum, who tore his quad against the Lions. The only other edge rusher on the depth chart is undrafted rookie Andre Carter II, who rushed the passer 40 times this season and recorded three pressures. This premium position is depleted. It hasn't helped that the only two edge rushers the Vikings have drafted in the last five years are Jones and Wonnum. (Side note: Minnesota hasn't allocated a first-round pick on an edge rusher since Erasmus James in 2005.)