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How Brian Flores' philosophy was shaped by scouting

Vikings defensive coordinator has focused on strengths of his players and fit the pieces together.

EAGAN — During Sunday’s 27-19 win over the New Orleans Saints, defensive coordinator Brian Flores used 20 different players on defense. The only defenders who were active and did not play on defense were special teams specialist NaJee Thompson and linebacker Nick Vigil.

The victory against New Orleans highlighted a number of young players who have noticeably developed as the season has gone on. Some examples:

— Cornerback Akayleb Evans was the highest PFF graded player on the field, allowing zero receptions into his coverage.

— Rookie Mekhi Blackmon played 36 plays, gave up two catches and picked off a pass.

— Andrew Booth Jr., whose snap count has been steadily growing, played 17 snaps with zero catches against him

— UDFA Ivan Pace Jr. played 56 snaps in Jordan Hicks’ absence

— DJ Wonnum had a key sack and tracked down Derek Carr from behind on a scramble

— Josh Metellus and Cam Bynum graded solidly again, which they have done all season, taking major steps from last season

One of the most difficult things in football is to parse out what causes certain results. Why have so many inexperienced players stepped up this year? Is it the scheme? Is it the development plan? Is it the natural progression of draft picks who would have become good eventually and just needed more time?

In the Vikings’ case it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that there has been a youth movement under Flores, whose mindset is to find roles that fit the individuals.

“I say this to our guys all the time: The difference between being a starter and a backup or a backup and a practice squad player is opportunity,” Flores said. “If guys prepare the right way, like Metellus, he’s the first guy that comes to mind, that when given the opportunity he takes that opportunity and runs with it. You have seen that with DJ [Wonnum].”

Flores’ ideology was forged early in his career. He was hired and trained by former Patriots director of player personnel Scott Pioli as a scout in 2004 when he was only 23 years old. He learned one particular phrase that has stayed with him 20 years later.

“Don’t tell me what they can’t do, tell me what they can do,” Flores said.

He has carried that over to coaching, not just in evaluating his own players but in teaching them to be the best versions of themselves.

“I try to tell players that you have to play to your strengths,” Flores said. “If you are a bull rusher, don’t try to play with finesse, that’s probably not going to work for you. If you’re a finesse rusher, don’t try to bull rush.”

The Vikings’ defensive coordinator, who had led a surge in recent weeks that has the team in the top 10 in yards per play allowed and percentage of drives in which they allow points, said that players sometimes want to prove that they can improve their weaknesses and prove coaches wrong but he implores them to put their energy toward honing strengths instead.

“I get it, we all want to work on things that we’re weak at,” Flores said. “I have weaknesses but I try to play to my strengths as a coach in all facets. I try to impart that to the players is that players who play to their strengths are playing the most consistent football.”

Flores believes that if players approach their meetings, walk-through and practices with the idea that they are going to get into the game, they will be able to take advantage of those opportunities. The way he views it, once the process works for them, there is more self belief and the cycle builds on itself.

“You apply it, you have success, you get more confident,” he said. “Apply it again, get more confident and next thing you know it you’re playing with consistency that everybody’s looking for in our league.”

Of course, that message wouldn’t matter if Flores still asked players to do things that weren’t playing to their best traits.

“We as a staff try to put them in positions to do the things they do well and keep them out of — as much as possible — things where they have some weaknesses,” Flores said.

The Vikings’ development is about to be tested in the coming weeks. Jordan Hicks was placed on injured reserve following surgery on his shin, which puts Pace Jr. in the limelight as the defensive signal caller — at least until they can get Anthony Barr up to speed. Troy Dye took snaps while Hicks was out on Sunday. Brian Asamoah was limited on Wednesday and it’s unclear when he will return.

Akayleb Evans was on the injury report with a calf issue that may keep him out. If he can’t play against Denver then Andrew Booth Jr. is likely forced into a much bigger role.

But pushing players up the depth chart has not been an issue this season, which speaks to the development path they have created.

Brian Flores

Brian Flores is in his first season as the Vikings defensive coordinator. 

Additional notes

— Anthony Barr took part in the walk-through practice wearing the number 54. He said that he received Eric Kendricks’ blessing to wear the number. As far as when he could be ready to go, Barr said, “It’s day by day. I’m trying to gather as much information as I can and be a sponge.”

Kevin O’Connell did use the words “this week” when talking about getting Barr up to speed but did not place a timeline of when he would be active on gameday.

O’Connell was asked about the reasoning for the Barr signing. He said: “[Barr] is somebody, knowing that he wasn’t on a roster or a practice squad, that you are always keeping track of those lists of guys that you feel like can come in and potentially have an impact for you. His history and just the feelings towards the player and person from his time here as a great great player made it pretty easy.”

On Hicks being placed on IR, O’Connell said: “there’s still some healing that has to happen and we wanted to make sure that we’ve got kind of some time before the ending stretch of the season, we wanted to make sure that we get him 100% back.”

— Jaren Hall appears ready to return. O’Connell said that Hall and Nick Mullens are both expected to serve as backups to Josh Dobbs on Sunday.

— KOC expects receiver KJ Osborn to be completely cleared and return this week.

— There is still no timeline for Justin Jefferson to return. O’Connell said they will “ramp him up” and “determine if it’s possible to have him this weekend.”

— KOC said that Kirk Cousins has taken on a role while he’s recovering from Achilles surgery where he is working on projects looking at different situations on film.

“I just asked him, ‘I just want you to be involved. I just want you to be around our team. Be around,’” O’Connell said.