Harrison Smith had an inkling about how things could go under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, but he chose not to divulge too much.
On the first day of training camp, I sat down with the Vikings elder-statesman safety for a one-on-one interview. The tone of his voice was noticeably upbeat as he talked about Flores and his potential impact on the defense overall — and on individual players. That was when Smith hedged.
"I think we have some pieces that maybe people don't realize we have that will be used well in this scheme," he said.
He said he didn't want to name names.
Fast forward to this week. So, Harrison, is it fair to say that Josh Metellus was one player that you had in mind with that quote?
"Yeah," he said.
How about Camryn Bynum? D.J. Wonnum?
"The way we're doing things and the way Flo changes things week to week, it's not a defense built for one guy or one position," Smith said. "Everybody is going to get opportunities, especially if you can do multiple things and be in different spots and handle it."
To that end, the Vikings have produced two NFC defensive player of the week winners and an NFC defensive player of the month recipient in 10 games. Smith deserved a weekly honor after one of the best games of his illustrious career against Carolina. Also, the Vikings have forced an NFL-leading 14 fumbles, and they are the only team with more than two players who have recorded three or more forced fumbles.
The defense features a star in Danielle Hunter, but the strength is in its versatility and unpredictability and the leader who puts it all together.
The No. 1 question entering this season was how much a change in coordinators would improve a unit that ranked among the worst in the NFL last season.
The answer: A lot, so far.
In 2022, the Vikings ranked 31st in total defense and 29th in scoring defense under Ed Donatell.
Entering Sunday's game at Denver, Flores' unit ranks 13th in total defense and 14th in scoring defense.
This with basically the same personnel.
"A defensive coordinator is supposed to know the strengths and weaknesses of the players and have them play toward their strengths," Hunter said. "He's been doing a good job of that."
Hunter is a prime example. He never looked totally comfortable in Donatell's scheme. He has returned to being a wrecking ball under Flores. He leads the league in tackles for loss, is tied for league-best in sacks with 11 and was NFC defensive player of the month in October.
Metellus has elevated himself from backup safety to a billboard advertisement for Flores' creativity. Metellus has flourished in a hybrid role that allows him to move all over the formation. His position should be labeled: Disruptor.
"The big thing for me is the trust that [Flores] has in me to execute," Metellus said.
Metellus said he had some idea of Flores' plans for him in training camp "but not to this extent." He already had set a goal for himself to produce a "breakthrough" season. He smiled when asked how much Flores has contributed to him fulfilling that objective.
"He definitely helped a lot," Metellus said.
Flores arrived with a reputation as an aggressive coordinator who loves to blitz, and he has made good on that promise. The Vikings lead the NFL in blitz rate.
But Flores' scheme is multifaceted. He creates confusion by being unpredictable in the way he uses players and in mixing blitzes with maximum coverage alignments.
"He does a lot of stuff that, if I was the offensive coordinator, I'd be confused," Hunter said.
The fact that different players have taken a leading role from game to game is not by coincidence.
"Normally when you go into games — whether it's offense or defense — coaches will say, 'We've got to make sure this guy doesn't wreck the game,'" Smith said. "But if you have a bunch of different guys affecting the game, it's hard to say, 'Well, if we stop him, we'll have a good chance.' Two, three or four other guys are going to be affecting the game pretty considerably."
Smith envisioned this possibility back on the first day of training camp. His instinct was correct.