The Vikings’ One Big Defensive Problem

from National
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Heading into Week 15 at the Cincinnati Bengals, every meaningful NFL statistical metric suggested the Minnesota Vikings were a Top 5 defense.

Folks were stoked; the four seasons of defensive hardship were in the rearview.

The Vikings’ One Big Defensive Problem

Then, Bengals-Vikings kicked off, Minnesota scored on offense out of the gate, and the defense held Jake Browning and friends to three points in three quarters. Life was good. Minnesota was tunneling toward an 8-6 record and total driver’s seat placement in the NFC’s playoff picture.

and secondary
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) makes a touchdown over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) in the 4th quarter Paycor Stadium Saturday, December 16, 2023. © Cara Owsley/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK.

But then the 4th Quarter happened.

The Vikings played buffoonishly on defense, almost directly aligned with the moment they secured a 17-3 lead. It was as if Minnesota’s defense said, “We are done for the day, folks.” The Bengals fired up back-to-back-to-back 70+ yard scoring drives and defeated the Vikings via walk-off field goal in overtime.

Instead of 8-6, Minnesota is 7-7 and must win two of its final three games to slip into the playoffs. That’s the new criteria: two out of three.

Brian Flores Weighs
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, this trait — reducing defensive ferociousness — is a trend for Brian Flores-led defenses. The Vikings hired Flores in February, a few weeks after cutting ties with Ed Donatell, who defensively coordinated the Vikings for one season. The hire was remarkable. Flores turned around a leaky defense in mere months.

That doesn’t erase the sins of the 4th Quarter, however.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) is sacked hard by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) in the second quarter of the NFL Week 15 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Minnesota Vikings at PayCor Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. © Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Minnesota has infamously squandered late-game leads versus the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears this season, seeming to take a foot off the gas per aggression. The Flores defense that risks everything during Quarters 1 through 3 tends to embrace conservatism down the stretch of ball games.

And the numbers don’t lie. This is a Flores thing, dating back to his head coaching tenure in Miami. Here are the numbers:

Brian Flores Defense,
EPA/Play Ranking,
Since 2019:

Quarters 1 thru 3: 6th
4th Quarter & OT: 16th

2021 —
Quarters 1 thru 3: 5th
4th Quarter & OT: 18th

2020 —
Quarters 1 thru 3: 6th
4th Quarter & OT: 11th

2019 —
Quarters 1 thru 3: 31st
4th Quarter & OT: 32nd

Perhaps the saving grace is that Flores’ defense doesn’t turn to utter rubble in the 4th Quarter. They’re just not as productive. For instance, ranking sixth leaguewide inside the current season but tumbling to the middle of the pack in the 4th quarter confirms the eye test. The first-three-quarters defense is different than the one on display in the final period. In short, Minnesota’s defense — and two of the Miami defenses before it — go from great to mediocre. Most-of-the-game majesty morphs into middling subservience with the game on the line.

One Big Defensive
Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores addressed the media from the TCO Performance Center. Flores was hired in February 2023 to take over for Ed Donatel after Minnesota finished 30th in points allowed.

Whether Flores fixes this in real-time remains to be seen. The pattern is clear and evident. The man usually fosters a wonderful defense, but cracks emerge in the clutch.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

All statistics provided by Pro Football Reference / Stathead; all contractual information provided by