Earlier this year, Lance Bennett was approached by a fellow Vikings defensive assistant coach who believed he'd made a breakthrough.

"Oh man; I think I finally understand Flo's system," the coach said.

Bennett — a close friend since high school of Flo, the Vikings' new defensive coordinator Brian Flores — told the coach he needed to look deeper.

"I said, 'It's not a system. It's a mindset,' " said Bennett, the team's defensive quality control coach. "It's not about, 'These are my grand ideas, this is my system.' No. [It's] 'what's in the cupboard?' If Mom says there's only beans in the cupboard tonight, we're going to figure out how to make a good meal out of what Mom said is in the cupboard."

The values by which Flores coaches defense were formed in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Brownsville neighborhood, where the kids who made it out usually were the ones with strong roots, a sharp eye to avoid trouble and a steel gut for the times they couldn't. He is the second-oldest of five boys; his parents, Raul and Maria, were Honduran immigrants who were unable to speak English when they came to the U.S., and sent four kids to college.

Flores, 42, learned defensive schemes under Bill Belichick, but intuited the longtime Patriots coach's attacking style after growing up around cautionary tales about the dangers of giving in. He is the third play-caller in as many years for a Vikings defense that's ranked 24th or worse in points allowed the past three seasons; his use-what-you-have ethos maps nicely onto a group that parted with five veterans and will rely on unproven players that could fit into varied roles.

He has heard many times he has an edge to him. It's there because in Brownsville, the ones who don't are the ones who get swallowed up.

"I always tell my players if you peel back the layers of me, what you're going to get is a street kid from Brooklyn who had to, for lack of a better term, fight his way out of that," said Flores, the Dolphins head coach from 2019 to 2021. "Sometimes, that was literally fight. But there's this figurative fight of trying to pull myself out. You have your story of poverty, drugs and violence. I think that's a similar story to a lot of players, and just a lot of people in general."

The Vikings job is Flores' first as a coordinator after 2022, when he was fired by Miami and filed a lawsuit against the NFL, the Dolphins, the Broncos and the Giants alleging racial discrimination in the league's hiring practices for head coaches. A federal judge in Manhattan ruled in March that Flores can pursue his suit in court, while sending his claims that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him money to lose games to arbitration. The league fined Ross $1.5 million and took a 2023 first-round pick and 2024 third-rounder from Miami after an investigation corroborated Flores' allegations that Ross had tampered with a prominent NFL quarterback (later revealed to be Tom Brady).

Coaches around the league sent Flores messages of support for challenging a system where just 25 Black men have become head coaches, despite the fact the majority of the league's players are Black.

"I think it means a lot for any minority coach, to have the courage to do something that's been unheard of, and no one really thought would happen — at least I didn't in my time," said Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones, who is Black. "Whatever comes out of it, he stood up."

Tenacity is at the root of much of what Flores does. The Vikings expect he will put that imprint on their defense.

"I had an edge as a student," Flores said. "There was nothing that was going to stop me from getting the grade I wanted. I was the only person that could stop me. That's kind of the mindset I've had for a long time."

'The new regime'

After scoring a 1,140 on his SAT, Flores earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree while playing football at Boston College, while returning to Brownsville on breaks from school to help younger brother Christopher, who has autism.

Much of his education in Brooklyn happened beyond the classroom.

Before their 10th birthdays, Flores and Bennett had been inured to the gritty realities of their neighborhood: which blocks to avoid on a walk to the train station, how to stand up for themselves when confronted. Few adults returned to the neighborhood with stories of success beyond Brownsville; sports or music seemed to offer the only avenues out. The kids who tired of pushing back, Flores said, were the ones who succumbed to "the real bad stuff."

"If you're soft, they're going to try you every day," he added.

Neither Flores nor Bennett speak of their childhood with any remorse. Buffeted by families who made up in love and support what they lacked in material resources, both stayed clear of the city's snares. Flores' uncle Darrel Patterson introduced him to football when he was 12; former NFL defensive tackle Dino Mangiero spotted Flores as a swift-footed youth running back and offered him a path out.

He was admitted to Brooklyn's Poly Prep Country Day School on a scholarship, where he played running back and safety. Each day, Flores walked 15 minutes from home to the Broadway Junction subway station — "That walk was kind of a dangerous walk," he said — and took the A train for 30 minutes to the High Street station, in what's become one of Brooklyn's most gentrified areas. From there, he took a bus to Poly Prep, in the affluent Dyker Heights neighborhood near Gravesend Bay.

It was the first time he had regularly had white classmates. Bennett got to Poly Prep a year after Flores and met him there; Bennett saw students from various backgrounds flocking toward a quiet, principled sophomore whose words carried weight.

"When you grow up in a tough background, and you're blessed with an opportunity like we were blessed with, there were a number of us that felt like, 'Hey, we've got to grab this by the horns and take advantage of this opportunity,' " Bennett said. "He was the first one of that new regime."

Holding the pen last

Wes Phillips won a Super Bowl ring with the Rams at the end of the 2021 season. Weeks later, he became an NFL offensive coordinator for the first time with the Vikings. But bring up Nov. 1, 2020, to Phillips, and prepare to be met with a long, rueful sigh.

"I thought I was never going to have to watch that game again," Phillips said. "And then we hire Brian Flores, and I have to revisit that game."

That day, the Rams lost 28-17 to the Dolphins, in a game that left Phillips, offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell and head coach Sean McVay scrambling for answers against Flores' defense. Flores had bested McVay and quarterback Jared Goff two years earlier, when he put together a Patriots game plan that held the NFL's No. 2 offense to three points in Super Bowl LIII. Now, he was at it again, seemingly two steps ahead of everything the Rams tried.

Goff threw two interceptions and fumbled twice against a Miami defense that sent defensive linemen to "tag" blockers before dropping into coverage while another defender raced after Goff unblocked. The game, in some ways, led the Rams trading Goff for Matthew Stafford after the season and winning the Super Bowl, putting O'Connell in line for the Vikings' head job.

O'Connell was a Patriots rookie QB when he first met Flores in 2008 and took a liking to him. But O'Connell never forgot about that day in 2020.

"Every time you tried to dictate in any way, shape or form, there was a response that was immediate and automatic," he said. "The players all knew exactly what to do, how to attack us and then our responses to that. As coaches on the sideline, with the play clock going, you're either ready or you're not. Flo has a saying: He likes to hold the pen last. And I remember having that feeling, walking out of the stadium, he held the pen last."

O'Connell said Flores was high on his list of defensive coordinator candidates in 2022, but "there was a lot going on last year that may or may not have contributed to me being able to bring him on in Year 1." When he was looking to replace Ed Donatell with a more aggressive coordinator in 2023, what drew O'Connell back to Flores was what had made that 2020 game so aggravating: His defense had answers for everything.

Phillips had to study the system of pressures and checks again, knowing he would see it in practice. Though Flores' defenses blitz frequently, and line up in plenty of pressure looks without a deep safety, he builds in ways to mitigate the risk, especially with veterans like linebacker Jordan Hicks making on-field checks.

"The scheme is really good, and it empowers players," Phillips said. "They know when to get out of it, too; they understand when people are checking the protection or canning plays. It's a risk-reward, but what I like is, really, it's not as much risk as you think."

Flores coaches with a checklist of fundamentals he needs to hit every week, a return to his Belichick-influenced roots. The foundation of his scheme is Belichick, too, with flavors from last season with Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, his time studying Mike Zimmer's systems in Minnesota and a few iterations of what the Vikings did in 2022.

Flores tells players frequently it's their defense, not his, and gives them the freedom to adjust things on the field. "As a coach, it's not easy to do that," safety Harrison Smith said. "I don't take that for granted."

The six-time Pro Bowl selection took a pay cut to return to Minnesota for his 12th season. The chance to work with Flores, he said, was high on the list of reasons he did so.

"You're playing against a Peyton Manning, and he's always holding the pen last," Smith said. "To me, offenses seem smarter, because they're always seeing what defenses are doing. Occasionally, a defense will kind of bite back a little bit. But why not try to do that more?"

Fighting the right fight

Flores was 23 when he went from Boston College to a scouting assistant job with the Patriots in 2004. He spent 14 years in New England before becoming the Dolphins head coach in 2019.

He and his wife, Jennifer, have moved sons Miles and Max and daughter Liliana twice since last year: first from Miami to Pittsburgh after the Dolphins fired him, then from Pittsburgh to Minnesota.

He filed the lawsuit knowing the fight that lay ahead. The hardest part of the last year has been its effect on his family.

"The last year has been hard," he said. "It's been hard on my family, it's been hard on me. I'm not in a rush to move my family. We had a tremendous, wonderful time in Pittsburgh. ... I've built strong relationships here in a short period of time. But again, I'm human. Oftentimes, I get viewed as emotionless. I can compartmentalize, and you have to be tough-minded. But it hasn't been easy."

Those who assume Flores will jump at the first head coaching job available might well remember he removed himself from the Cardinals' head coaching search to join the Vikings. He said he has had "enlightening" dialogue with O'Connell, about everything from schemes to leadership. He has relished the time to watch his sons' Peewee football games, and enjoyed the back-and-forth with O'Connell, 38; Phillips, 44; and special teams coordinator Matt Daniels, 33, all husbands and fathers of young kids.

The encouragement he has heard from other coaches about his lawsuit, Flores said, has helped him "know I'm not alone, as far as knowing there's some things that need change.

"I'm fighting the right fight. I feel good about that, and I'll continue to go down that path."

He's fighting, in part, for the people he sees when he goes back to Brooklyn every once in a while to speak to youth football programs. When Flores shows up, Bennett said, "those people are glowing.

"That's their exposure to hope. Someone made it out."