There might be no position more emblematic of the Vikings, through the first 62 seasons of the team's history, than defensive line.
Of the 27 members in the Vikings Ring of Honor, seven are defensive linemen, more than any other position. The most famous position group in Vikings history, the Purple People Eaters, includes two members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Alan Page and Carl Eller) and another player (Jim Marshall) who was a finalist for the 2004 class. Four Vikings defensive linemen — Page, Eller, Chris Doleman and John Randle — are enshrined in Canton. Only the offensive line, with five players, makes up a larger share of the Vikings' 15-member Hall of Fame class.
Through the first four games of the team's 63rd season, though, the definition of the position is changing.
Under Brian Flores, the Vikings construct their defensive fronts independent of static position definitions. On some plays, like Harrison Smith's strip sack of Bryce Young on Sunday against the Panthers, the Vikings might present a seven-man pressure look with two down linemen, four linebackers and a safety off the edge. On others, like a pair of third-and-long snaps in the second quarter, they might show a three-man front where three linebackers — all of them former defensive linemen in a 4-3 scheme — rush the quarterback, while linebacker Jordan Hicks drops into coverage with seven defensive backs.
On Sunday, the Vikings had 12 defensive players who were on the field for at least 50% of their defensive snaps. Just one (Harrison Phillips) is listed on their roster as a defensive lineman.
It's all part of a shift that has unhitched defenses from traditional position definitions, as teams have sought ways to deal with more complex offenses and prized players who can operate in space. It started when the Vikings moved from the 4-3 base defense they'd used for decades to a 3-4 under coach Kevin O'Connell, turning their primary pass rushers from defensive linemen to stand-up edge rushers who could move around the formation. Flores' systems, which he first honed under Bill Belichick in New England, have taken it a step further.
Against the Eagles in Week 2, Flores debuted a package with one defensive lineman, five linebackers and five defensive backs to take away Jalen Hurts' run-pass option plays. The Eagles countered by running for 259 yards, with Hurts handing off 13 more times than he threw. The Vikings, though, had planned for Marcus Davenport to lend a physical presence to the package; he played only four snaps because of an ankle injury.
With Davenport playing 62% of the team's defensive snaps in his return Sunday, the Vikings' approach took on a fuller form.
"I just gave him a game ball not too long ago in the team meeting," O'Connell said Monday. "The word that comes to mind, when I turned on the tape and watched him, is just 'disruptive.' I mean, he's such a force to try to block one on one in the run game and some of those looks we can get into, whether we're bringing pressure or not, and allow him to take gaps when he wants. He had a great spin move rush versus a one-on-one on the guard."
Davenport's fourth-quarter sack Sunday came from a package where the Vikings used six linebackers — four edge rushers on the line of scrimmage, with Hicks and Ivan Pace Jr. at the second level — in front of five defensive backs. On Smith's final two sacks to end the game, the Vikings went with a 2-4-5 package, followed by a 0-5-6 package, where they put seven defenders on the line of scrimmage before the snap, dropping three into coverage while Smith blitzed off the edge.
"I talked to the team about it the night before the game, visualizing 99 [Danielle Hunter], 0 [Davenport] and 98 [D.J. Wonnum] having a meeting at the quarterback," O'Connell said. "It happened on some critical downs. When you saw us get off the field there, when it wasn't Harry making the play, it was really one of those three guys. Pat Jones made some significant plays in the run game. So those outside 'backers, if you're going to have multiple kind of groupings on the field, those guys have to show up from a disruption and physicality standpoint. That's kind of what we envisioned for Marcus when we went out and got him. It was just awesome to see him go out and make it come to life."
The more Hunter watched Davenport in practices leading up to the Panthers game, the more excited he got about what the edge rusher could do with fresh legs.
"It didn't matter; whoever he was going to go against, it was going to be a hard time because he's fresh," Hunter said. "The ability to come out there, be on whichever side he wants and apply that pressure, I think that's a plus for the defense."
The Vikings have used a variety of defensive packages this season, but some of the looks they employed Sunday could return in a week against Patrick Mahomes, especially if they deem it necessary to have defenders who can play in space against the quarterback, running back Isiah Pacheco, Travis Kelce and the Chiefs' receivers.
As O'Connell reflected on his first year as head coach, he realized he needed to spend more time with his coordinators to discuss how they could implement his vision for an upcoming game. He's done more of that with Flores this season, meeting with him early each week to talk through defensive ideas and how an offensive play-caller might react.
"I might say, 'Hey, maybe you can line up like this and do this,' and he's normally already down that road," O'Connell said. "That's what I love about him, is he's always thinking about taking something and either repackaging it or changing the look altogether, or taking that look and running something completely different out of it."
Against Mahomes, the Vikings might need all the ingenuity and effectiveness they can muster.