Skip to main content

Vikings defense is using everybody everywhere all the time

Brian Flores has brought an entirely new identity to the Vikings' defense and everyone is getting in on it

EAGAN — Josh Metellus joked on Thursday that he is petitioning to have his position switched to “ATHLETE” on the team website. Harrison Smith has been referring to the system as an “amoeba.”

Welcome to the Minnesota Vikings’ defense, where everybody has to be ready to play in any position against any opponent in any situation.

In their 22-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Vikings used 17 different defensive players, sometimes just for a few snaps. Rookie Jaquelin Roy was in for two plays and stuffed a run on one of them. Safety Theo Jackson was on the field for seven snaps. Andrew Booth Jr. rotated in for 13 plays and both Ivan Pace Jr. and Khyiris Tonga were out there for five reps.

“We had the extra D-lineman up for the game and I thought that was critical to keep those guys fresh and really all those guys had an impact on the football game, even J-Roy wasn’t in a whole ton, but he had two critical positive plays when he was in there, looked active and staying fresh is huge for those guys up front,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said.

In past years the Vikings stuck with their starters so much that if someone’s snap count went down the only explanation was either injury or poor performance. Flores’ approach is different. The way Flores sees it, the front office gave him 25 players on the roster and he’s going to use every one of them in every possible way in order to stop the other team.

“Every week we look at the opponent and we look at our roster and we say, ‘what’s the best way to put guys in position to defend what this group does?’” Flores said. “You get a Christian McCaffrey on the field you don’t want to get mismatched so let’s put a bunch of DBs on the field… Every week it’s a little bit of a mix and match. That keeps people off balance.”

Smith looks at the usage of everyone in his defensive back room as part of Flores’ core philosophy to make it more difficult for opposing offenses to figure out what pressures they are dialing up and coverages they are playing.

“That’s how it’s built, that’s the idea of it,” Smith said on Thursday. “We have body types out there that don’t have to fit one traditional role. Guys can handle it mentally and it makes it fun. It makes it sometimes hard for offenses to identify who’s playing what role. When you put more defensive back type bodies out there you’d think that you can’t stop the run but if you can stop the run in those packages it gives you a lot of flexibility. The coverage aspect, the blitz aspect, everything.”

Flexibility is the name of the game, not just in terms of the sheer number of different players who see the field but the ways in which Flores uses his key defenders. Versus Chicago two weeks ago Smith split his plays between free safety and playing up at the line of scrimmage but against the 49ers he was often close enough to the line to smell Brock Purdy’s cologne.

“We have players everywhere,” Metellus said. “Safeties playing corner, corners playing safety, a little mix of everything. There’s a lot of DBs in there, a lot of ball hawks flooding the zones and giving quarterbacks a hard time.”

The data demonstrates just how versatile Flores has asked his defenders to be. Here’s a look at percentages of snaps by position for the three safeties, via Pro Football Focus data:

Harrison Smith

Percentage of snaps by position

Percentage of snaps by position

Cam Bynum

Percentage of snaps by position

Percentage of snaps by position

Josh Metellus

Percentage of snaps by position

Percentage of snaps by position

These numbers are vastly different from last year. Bynum played 76% of his snaps as a free safety in 2022 and Smith 57%. Metellus only saw the field for 259 plays, which he’s cleared by over 100 already this year. All three rank in the top 25 safeties by PFF grade, though Metellus might have an argument as a linebacker or nickel corner based on his snap distribution.

“Multiple personnel groupings where some of those guys are playing linebacker spots or playing DB spots, big nickel spots, whatever it is, it just allows us to be versatile, make the offense have to identify kind of not only what we’re playing but who’s in the game and how they want to identify those defensive structures and it can be tough for offensives at times before the ball is ever snapped,” O’Connell said.

Where Flores seems to have connected with his safeties is their football intelligence. From the start of training camp the Vikings’ defensive coordinator has mentioned their ability to process a lot of information, which allows him to completely open up the playbook.

“In this defense it’s a lot of playing different positions,” Metellus said. “One week we’ll have Cam in the post and the next week we’ll have him covering the team’s best player or me lining up at nickel and then the next play playing linebacker. The grasp of the IQ of the system and knowing football, having safeties like me and Cam helps our defense.”

“It’s weird looking sometimes,” Smith joked.

The results are beginning to show. They have held opponents under 20 points in three of the last four games and caused seven turnovers since starting the season 0-3 with just two turnovers forced in those games. The only time they have given up over 100 yards rushing since the loss to Philadelphia was to Chicago and the Bears only threw for 113 total yards in that game.

Now the Vikings head to Lambeau Field facing a Packers offense that ranks 17th in points and 26th in yards. First-year starter Jordan Love has struggled mightily under pressure with a 47.2 QB rating and the Packers rank 24th in yards per rush attempt. You can bet Flores will be dialing up all sorts of different looks for the young quarterback and everyone on defense will need to be ready to line up anywhere at any time.

“Every week it’s a little bit of a mix and match,” Flores said.