Flores vs. Shanahan is a battle of two unique schemes

The Vikings’ defense has been transformed by Flores but it faces one of the NFL’s best offensive minds on Monday night.

 

— If styles make fights, this should be a good one.

 

The Minnesota Vikings are running out the most aggressive defense in the NFL under defensive coordinator Brian Flores, while the Kyle Shanahan San Francisco 49ers are once again rolling out a quick-strike offense that puts their group of elite playmakers in all types of different positions to thrive.

 

Before we get into what they are doing, let’s look at how well the 49ers are doing statistically after six weeks…

 

The 49ers have scored the second most points in the NFL (184) and rank second to the Dolphins in yards per play (6.0) and second in Expected Points Added, which compares production to game situation.

 

They have done so by being good at everything. San Francisco is second in yards per pass attempt and seventh in yards per rushing attempt. They have lost the fifth fewest yards to sacks, have the fewest interceptions in the NFL and rank eighth on third downs, fifth on fourth downs and fourth in red zone touchdown percentage.

 

On an individual level, QB Brock Purdy is second in success rate and adjusted net yards per pass attempt and No. 1 in ESPN’s QBR. Running back Christian McCaffrey is the league leader in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns. Receiver Brandon Aiyuk averages 18.2 yards per reception, fifth in the NFL, and tight end George Kittle ranks as PFF’s third best tight end. That’s not even to mention All-Pro Deebo Samuel, who averages a shade over 15 yards per catch.

 

There is a weakness on the 49ers’ team: The offensive line. While Trent Williams is one of the greatest players in history at left tackle, the 49ers are 27th in pass blocking grade by PFF so far this season.

 

The ways in which Shanahan has mitigated the O-line struggles speak to what makes them so productive. Defenses are faced with a ton of confusion before the play and Purdy is a lightning quick decision maker.

 

ESPN’s Seth Walder tweeted the teams that use the most motion at the snap of the football and the most total motion and the 49ers rank third.

 

 

 

Flores is well aware of all the 49ers’ shenanigans before the snap and the issues they can cause for a defense.

 

“We can’t sit there thinking about what to do or be mesmerized by every shift, motion, jet — he’s got it all…whatever you want to call it known to man then, he’s got ‘em,” Flores said. “What they’re trying to do is get your eyes to where they want your eyes and then go the other way. It’s easy to say, ‘don’t look at that’ …but it’s about playing team defense, reading your keys, everyone handling their responsibility.”

 

The challenge for the defense is made even more difficult when the 49ers get the ball into their playmakers’ hands quickly. While Purdy’s talent vs. circumstance has been debated endlessly on the internet, what is clear is that he knows where to go with the football. He ranks fourth quickest in terms of snap to throw (2.45 seconds) and the sixth most throws under 2.5 seconds. His numbers are extremely good when he throws fast, posting a 107.6 quarterback rating in sub-2.5 second passes.

 

However, painting Purdy as a dink-and-dunk quarterback would be unfair. He ranks second in yards per attempt when holding the ball longer than 2.5 seconds with an average depth of target over 12 yards. On throws that have traveled more than 10 yards in the air, the 49ers’ QB is 36-for-53 with 14.3 yards per attempt (per PFF).

 

You can see Shanahan’s scheme at work. The deep and intermediate performance is tied into play-action, where Purdy has a 144.8 QB rating on 39 attempts. The good quick-game numbers are connected with having the fourth best QB rating on screens.

 

So how do you stop all that?

 

“Everyone handling their responsibility,” Flores said. “Edge player has to set the edge, deep player play deep, tackle well, defeat blocks and if we do all those things and put yourself in good position and then make the play. Definitely a challenge. We love challenges, that’s why we’re here.”

 

 

 

The question is whether Flores will continue to send extra rushers. On Wednesday he talked about the Vikings’ league-high blitz percentage, which is more than 10% higher than anyone else in the NFL according to Pro-Football Reference. That stat is determined by counting any time more than four rushers are sent. He doesn’t quantify it in those terms.

 

“There’s a lot of layers to it,” Flores said. “People talk about blitz and blitz percentages. I may see it a little bit differently. There’s run pressures, there’s max blitzes, there’s fire pressures, there’s fire zones — we’ve done all of them over the course of the year.”

 

Against the blitz, Purdy has done well. His QB rating is a shade over 100 and he’s averaging 7.0 yards per attempt. But there is some weakness there. Opposing teams have come after him 45% of the time and he has a higher turnover-worthy play and sack rate. His completion percentage also drops from 75% to 58%.

 

“For a team like this there are spots where you’d like to [blitz] in the run game and there’s other times you don’t want to do it, that could be because of their play-pass game,” Flores said. “Players are part of that as well. Do we want to leave them out there, will the pressure get there? If it doesn’t work then we left them out there and if it does then we haven’t let them out there. There’s decisions that have to be made and we try to — based on formation, down-and-distance, send it in the most advantageous spots.”

 

The Vikings defensive coordinator had Jimmy Garoppolo’s head spinning the last time he faced Shanahan’s offense in 2020. Jimmy G threw two interceptions and the Dolphins rolled to a 43-17 victory. That doesn’t mean he’s taking Shanahan’s prowess lightly.

 

“Kyle has done this for a long time and has seen every front structure, every coverage, every concept, every blitz and has an answer for all of those.”

 

Flores’ group is showing signs of life under his hyper aggressive style. They are 10th in yards per play versus 29th last season. They are in the middle of the pack in other rate stats like yards per drive (18th) and scoring percentage allowed (19th), which are big gains from one of the NFL’s worst D’s in 2022.

 

But the blitz is just one part of what he’s done to improve the Vikings’ defense. He has also used all kinds of different personnel packages and alignments to challenge opponents. There is no player who better demonstrates this than safety Josh Metellus, who is a true hybrid player, who has taken 171 snaps in the box or on the D-line and 167 as a slot defender. He leads all safeties in QB pressures with 10. The next highest is Kyle Hamilton with seven.

 

“I try to talk to our staff about, this is the type of player we’re looking for in this grouping,” Flores said. “[Defensive backs coach Daronte Jones] did a great job of saying that he’d been with Metellus for some time here and he can do this, this, this, this and this, and I’m like, ‘he can do all those things?’ Thankfully Daronte was right. Just from a capacity standpoint he understands the game almost to a coach’s level.”

 

Metellus isn’t the only one moving all over the field. Harrison Smith has taken more snaps in the box than as a deep safety and Cam Bynum has moved up to the box on 76 snaps through six games, on pace to clear his mark from last season by about Week 13.

 

We have seen D-line alignments that include Danielle Hunter and another outside linebacker on the same side or an edge rusher over the center. Opposing offenses have to identify where everyone is going to be and who’s on the field on every play.

 

As great as the X’s and O’s battle is between two top coaches at their craft, Flores has a reminder for his team: Scheme is great but only if it comes along with all the classic pad-popping football elements as well. Toughness always plays a role when matching up with the 49ers.

 

“If there is a [49ers] player on the field, that player is physical and we have to match that physicality,” Flores said. “I’ve known Kyle a long time and I know he’s preaching that day after day after day. Everybody knows that. They are going to bring a physical style and we have to match it.”

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