Vikings-Titans joint practice: Brian Flores’ defense showing hints of creativity


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EAGAN, Minn. — Kevin O’Connell, the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach, does not mess around when it comes to preseason preparation. Every minuscule element of training camp is thought out, whether it’s the types of drills to run on certain days or the teams he wants to face in joint practices.

Last year, the San Francisco 49ers converged on the TCO Performance Center. O’Connell believed the 49ers to be one of the NFL’s premier teams. Their overall skill and soundness, O’Connell thought, would establish a baseline for what was required to be successful.

This week, the rough-and-tumble Tennessee Titans are visiting. What better way to test new offensive and defensive schemes than to match up against a Mike Vrabel-coached team that features Derrick Henry in the run game and Jeffrey Simmons on defense?

Although the practice was fairly tame, some key themes emerged. Here’s what I saw:

1. This year’s offense is going to be different. I expect heavier personnel groupings to set the tone in the run game. I anticipate more passing concepts that help free up superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson.

For multiple reasons, the full revamp was not on display Wednesday. Personnel played a role. The Vikings were without first-round pick Jordan Addison, who entered the concussion protocol recently after making a catch and hitting the ground. Additionally, tight end T.J. Hockenson, who has been navigating an ear infection that affected his equilibrium, did not participate Wednesday.

The Vikings replaced Addison with Jalen Reagor when the team used three wide receiver sets. Newly signed Josh Oliver, meanwhile, manned the No. 1 tight end spot.

2. Three other potential contributors missed Wednesday’s practice: linebacker Brian Asamoah, running back Kene Nwangwu and receiver Jalen Nailor. Asamoah stood alongside the team during drills, and Nailor stood on the sidelines. Nwangwu, on the other hand, was not present.

Asamoah’s and Nwangwu’s undisclosed injuries could have the biggest ramifications. Asamoah had gotten a hefty chunk of first-team reps, while Nwangwu had been competing for the backup running back spot. The lengthier their absences, the more opportunity for players like Ivan Pace Jr. and Ty Chandler, respectively.

3. Brian Flores’s defense has been the buzz of training camp for a number of reasons. In many ways, his schematic approach is the polar opposite of Ed Donatell’s. Sitting back and taking punches from the offense is a thing of the past. Throwing uppercuts is the theme of the present.

Wednesday served as the starting defense’s first real opportunity to deploy its strategy. And Flores did not hold back. Cornerbacks blitzed while linebackers dropped. Safeties blitzed while defensive linemen dropped. Pick any two defensive position groups and they likely switched off, taking turns flying toward the quarterback.

Early in the practice, the Vikings defense fared well against the run as Henry appeared to have little wiggle room. Later on, Titans quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Malik Willis plucked away at underneath zones and the flats. Short passes helped Tennessee move the sticks, and as one Vikings player put it afterward, the team believes that more time operating at full speed will help the defense improve at constricting underneath windows.

4. The two Vikings cornerbacks featured most prominently were Byron Murphy Jr. and Akayleb Evans. If you’ve followed the arc of camp, neither name should surprise you. Murphy is unquestionably the team’s best at the position. He’s also the most experienced. Among the remaining players in the room, Evans seems the most prepared to man an outside spot.

After practice, Evans giggled when asked what it was like to finally use all of the knowledge he and the team had learned from Flores and defensive backs coach Daronte Jones over the last few months.

“It was so fun,” Evans said.

5. When the Titans lined up in 11 personnel Wednesday, featuring three wide receivers, the Vikings used rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon alongside Evans and Murphy. In fact, in that defensive subpackage, the Vikings slid Murphy inside.

NFL teams (like the Vikings and Titans) are aligning their best receiver in the slot more than ever. When DeAndre Hopkins shifted inside Wednesday, Murphy was there, standing across from him. On certain snaps, Murphy even appeared to be playing man coverage then darted in toward Tannehill on blitzes.

6. Speaking of Blackmon, if you had entered the TCO Performance Center on Wednesday with zero knowledge of the cornerback room, you would have been struck by No. 11. The rookie, whom the Vikings selected in the third round of April’s draft, looked comfortable playing with the starting group. Not once did he appear out of sorts, overmatched or confused.

“The thing that I’m most pleasantly surprised about with him,” Jones said, “is he doesn’t have a typical corner mindset in that he wants to learn the entire defense. Not just his position. He’s learning the defense more from a safety position, and that allows him to be able to play inside and outside.”

7. There is not a Vikings defender who will see a bigger year-over-year shift in his role than safety Josh Metellus. This was evident in the spring even in walk-through practices without pads. The early portion of training camp has only cemented Metellus’ uptick in defensive snaps, and Wednesday did nothing to change that expectation.

For much of Wednesday’s practice, the Titans used three-wide receiver sets. When they did, the Vikings matched it with five defensive backs, three of whom were safeties. Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum occupied more traditional safety roles, while Metellus roved around as a quasi-linebacker. He mugged the A-gap. He retreated to the deep safety spot. He had a level of freedom that matched only Smith’s in terms of the ways he could operate.


Why LB Brian Asamoah embodies the Vikings’ defensive transformation under Brian Flores

8. Freedom is an important tenet of Flores’ defense. So much so that Vikings defenders have been pitching Flores on potential blitz looks. All ideas are welcome, and many of them have been implemented.

“It’s based off of personnel,” Jones said. “Some people may have more freedom than others.”

9. Here’s another creative defensive personnel tidbit:

On numerous snaps, the Vikings had Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport and D.J. Wonnum on the field all at once. This is an indication of creativity on the front, especially on pass-rush downs. Even then, the Vikings did not appear to put many of the stunts, twists and games they will use during the season into play.

10. We wrote about safety Theo Jackson being on the rise earlier this week, but he impressed again Wednesday, and Jones was complimentary of his play.

“You may have noticed he’s playing various positions,” Jones said. “He gives us position flex. He has the ability to process and get lined up and get guys lined up. You like how he’s a part of that communication hub. And you like the versatility he brings.”

The safety room is arguably the Vikings’ deepest on defense. Smith, Bynum and Metellus will start. Former first-rounder Lewis Cine continues to progress in his return from a compound leg fracture. Jackson, whom the Titans selected in the sixth round of last year’s draft, might be the team’s fifth safety. His performance, though, has been too good not to add him to the 53-man roster. At a minimum, he will impact games on special teams.

Then there is recently drafted defensive back Jay Ward, who has also shown good processing speed and awareness over the last week.

11. Offensively, the Vikings were not able to run as many plays as they had hoped to in the 11-on-11 period at the end of practice. Kirk Cousins connected with Reagor over the middle. Then, on the very next play, Cousins attempted a pass toward the left sideline to K.J. Osborn. The ball, which may have been affected by the wind, hung up in the air long enough for Titans cornerback Roger McCreary to snag it. The interception ended the first team’s chances.

The second-team offense’s competitive period ended similarly. Backup quarterback Nick Mullens found Trishton Jackson over the middle for a lengthy completion. Then, on the next play, the Titans defensive line tipped a Mullens pass and the ball was intercepted.

“I wish we could’ve gotten a significant drive there in the two-minute period to get the work that we were hoping to get,” O’Connell said. “But you’ve got to play it true.”

12. Unequivocally, the most impressive Vikings performance Wednesday was Ryan Wright’s punting display. He booted 60-yarders that wobbled so aggressively that the Titans punt returners seemed perplexed.

“We did let him kick downwind today,” O’Connell said. “I know we would all prefer to be downwind when we’re on the tee box.”

(Photo: Christopher Mast / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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