Flores hired as Vikings’ defensive coordinator

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EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have hired Brian Flores as their new defensive coordinator, the team announced Monday, ending a monthlong search to replace the fired Ed Donatell.

Flores spent last season as the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach after being fired as head coach by the Miami Dolphins following the 2021 season. He’ll take over a defense that finished No. 31 in the NFL in yards allowed and is on the cusp of a significant personnel overhaul. He has a yearslong relationship with Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, who was drafted by the New England Patriots as a quarterback in 2008 when Flores was a special teams assistant there.

After firing Donatell on Jan. 19, the Vikings quickly interviewed four candidates for the job: Ryan Nielsen, Sean Desai, Mike Pettine and Flores. Nielsen took the Atlanta Falcons‘ defensive coordinator job and Desai removed his name from consideration, but sources told ESPN all along that then-Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was their top candidate.

Evero and O’Connell spent two years on the Los Angeles Rams‘ coaching staff in 2020 and 2021, and O’Connell hoped to reunite in 2023. But Sunday, one day after the Broncos released Evero from his contract, he agreed to terms with the Carolina Panthers to be their defensive coordinator without taking an interview with the Vikings.

On Monday, the Vikings moved on to Flores, who also was a finalist for the Arizona Cardinals‘ open head-coaching job.

Flores joins the Vikings one year after suing the NFL and three teams — the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants — alleging discrimination regarding his interview processes with Denver and New York and his firing by Miami. Longtime NFL assistants Steve Wilks and Ray Horton later joined the suit, which the NFL is attempting to move to arbitration. Flores also alleged the Dolphins tried to incentivize him to lose games and participate in illegal tampering; the league disciplined the Dolphins last summer for tampering violations of “unprecedented scope and severity,” according to commissioner Roger Goodell.

It was not immediately clear how Flores’ arrival would affect the scheme that O’Connell originally hired Donatell to install. Flores’ defense in Miami was known for heavy blitzing — it had the NFL’s fourth-highest blitz rate from 2019 to 2021 — and man-to-man coverage in the secondary, two characteristics the Vikings largely stayed away from under Donatell.

O’Connell said after he was hired that he wanted an approach modeled after the 3-4 scheme popularized by longtime NFL coach Vic Fangio. Donatell was a longtime member of Fangio’s staff in San Francisco, Chicago and Denver, but his version of the scheme proved predictable and often ineffective. It drew national scrutiny as early as Week 2, when ESPN analyst Troy Aikman called out the soft zone coverage it used as the Philadelphia Eagles moved the ball up and down the field in a 24-7 loss.

Donatell made clear that his core philosophy was to rely on his front four — especially linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter — to apply enough pressure to allow the rest of the defense to sit back in zone coverage. But the Vikings’ four-man rush managed a 23.9% pressure rate during the regular season, the ninth lowest in the league, and their shell zone left far too much room for easy yards.

After the defense allowed more than 400 yards for the fifth consecutive game last month against the Detroit Lions, O’Connell directed Donatell publicly and privately to make changes. Donatell did make some tweaks to the Vikings’ pass rush schemes, personnel usage and coverage types, but it did not lead to significant improvement.

Overall, the Vikings were in their nickel personnel group on 80.4% of snaps, the third-highest rate in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. They were in split safeties on 50.4% of their defensive snaps, the league’s fifth-highest rate. They used zone coverage at a rate of 79.4%, the fourth highest in the league, and they blitzed at the NFL’s 12th-lowest rate (22.1%).

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