Brian Flores’ defense is starting to take hold in Minnesota.

Just ask veteran safety Harrison Smith.

The 11-year Viking had the best game of his career in the Vikings‘ first win of the season over the Carolina Panthers. Smith had 14 tackles, two for loss, three sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble during the game, becoming the first player in NFL history to have three or more sacks, 14 combined tackles and a forced fumble in one outing.

It led a defensive effort that allowed just six offensive points. The last time the Vikings did that, Smith had a lot to do with it, too. That game came back in 2014 against the St. Louis Rams where Smith had two tackles, a sack and an 81-yard interception return for a touchdown. 

The Vikings’ 21-13 win was largely because of the overall defensive effort. The Panthers were just 5 of 14 on third down for a 35.7 percent conversion rate. Carolina had just 232 net yards, 149 of which were passing yards by the rookie Bryce Young. They were 0-for-2 in the red zone.

This all happened as quarterback Kirk Cousins, conversely to Smith, had his worst game of the season, going just 12 of 19 passing for 139 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. After losing three straight one-score games where Cousins played largely well, they end up winning the one-score game where he didn’t.

And it’s because the Vikings are getting used to Flores’ new system. Flores puts an extreme amount of responsibility on his players — especially the veterans. He told me back in September that his defense would go through both Smith and linebacker Jordan Hicks. They were the point-players. Flores wants his players to have autonomy over the system. 

“We try to equip them with enough tools to put themselves in the best positions and I think some of the older players kind of gravitate to that and really enjoy it because it’s fun for them,” said Flores in September. “It’s not [my system]. It’s theirs. I think if they have those tools, there’s opportunities there that I couldn’t ever forecast as a play caller because I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Flores tries to set his players up for success and let them do the rest. It’s resulted in a lot of creativity over the years, especially with the absence of a top-end pass rusher. Minnesota is the first time Flores has had players like Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport, who played like he was mad at the world in Carolina in his first game as a Viking where he actually got on the field. 

Hunter has five sacks already this season. Smith now has three. The team as a whole has 11, which is two more than last year at this time. Hunter also leads the team in pressures of any kind with 13 on the season. 

Justin Jefferson on state of the Vikings after first win of season

We’re also not seeing a drop-off in creativity by Flores even with Hunter and now Davenport. The Vikings are doing wild things on defense in the name of getting pressure. There are times, especially inside the red zone and at the goal line, where Flores is putting seven-man fronts on the line of scrimmage that are comprised entirely of linebackers (both inside and outside). He’s blitzing literally all the time. Against the Chargers in Week 3, the Vikings blitzed Justin Herbert on 81.6 percent of dropbacks.

It’s not all getting home. In fact, a lot of it isn’t getting home. But I don’t think it’s going to stop improving. With the defensive leaders now seeing results, the time will come for each starter to get comfortable in their role. It only seems like a matter of time before Minnesota will be able to rely on their defense to keep them in — and win — one-score games again.

The Vikings have a tough game coming up against the Kansas City Chiefs at home this weekend. In fact, two of their next three opponents are at the top of the league right now in the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers in Week 7. But Minnesota also gets the struggling Chicago Bears in Week 6. They also have the Packers, Falcons, Saints and Broncos before facing the Bears again in Week 12. The point is, the Vikings are getting a winnable stretch off football just as their defense is coming on. That could mark a turnaround for Minnesota and help them compete in the division, after all. 

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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