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Kirk Cousins, Vikings' Defense Provide Blueprint to Potentially Revive Season

The Minnesota Vikings season was over three weeks ago. They were 0-3 with losses to the Buccaneers, Eagles and Chargers, only one of which is a clear playoff contender. 

Despite keeping all those games close, the Vikings couldn't find ways to finish the deal. It felt like all the goodwill they enjoyed from a season ago had flipped on its head. 

Oh, how fast things can change in the NFL. Fast-forward to Monday night, and the Vikings are moving to 3-4 with a 22-17 win against the San Francisco 49ers

In any normal universe, Justin Jefferson would be part of that win. But the Vikings don't adhere to the rules of any normal universe. Instead, we get a chippy Vikings defense having the game of their lives on the biggest stage and Kirk Cousins digging deep to play his best football of the season, a confluence of factors a previously unlucky Vikings team could only dream of. 

If you can't be good, be weird. 

Flores' Dynamic Defense

That's the philosophy Brian Flores' defense has taken on in Minnesota. 

Just take a look at their roster. They don't have a choice to be anything but weird. It's a mishmash of journeyman-free agents and unproven youth outside of DE Danielle Hunter and S Harrison Smith

This isn't a group with any clear ways to win or any real roster makeup suggesting any typical defensive structure can be built. Everyone outside their building pinned them as a bottom-five defense with a bullet. 

Flores took that as a challenge. He saw this Vikings roster not as an unworkable collection of garbage but as a blank canvas. A clean slate for him to do all of the weird and unique stuff that might get you called insane if you tried to run them with a "normal" defensive roster with actual expectations.

Flores' creativity has manifested itself in his pass-rush plan. Flores has always been a blitz-heavy guy, but nobody uses their front the way Flores is. It’s not even close. 

The Vikings have sent at least five pass-rushers on 56.4 percent of plays this season. That's the most in the league by a wide margin this season, and it's the highest rate for any team in at least the past five seasons, according to TruMedia. Wink Martindale's 2019 Ravens are the only other team above 50 percent. 

Usually, that's where the insanity stops for unique pass-rush units, but not for Flores, not for this weird, punchy Vikings defense. 

Flores' Vikings are also the most frequent drop-eight team in the league. They love to send just three players and drop eight defenders into coverage. They've rushed just three players on 17 percent of plays this season, most in the league by almost seven percent. 

What's generally reserved as a rare changeup for most defenses has become a staple for Flores. 

Knocking Off Purdy

49ers QB Brock Purdy had to deal with that whiplash all night long. The Vikings sent at least five rushers at Purdy on 50 percent of his dropbacks and only sent three on 15.6 percent of his dropbacks. It was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pass-rush plan.  

Purdy wasn't all that phased in the first half, to his credit. Purdy stood in and made some sweet throws over the middle. After all, this 49ers offense is much more talented than the Vikings defense. Those skill players would win their share of 1-on-1s, and there was never a doubt about that. 

When it came time to bring the team back from a deficit in the fourth quarter, though, Purdy started spinning. Flores got two interceptions out of Purdy. One was on a five-man rush, and the other was on a three-man rush. 

Purdy's first interception was against a three-deep, three-under pressure. Think of it like Cover 3 but with one of the underneath defenders rushing instead of playing coverage. Design-wise, this isn't anything special. Every defense has this in their bag. 

It's just that the Vikings were relentless in throwing this kind of attack at Purdy. DT Dean Lowry won his 1-on-1 in this instance and sped Purdy up, causing him to misfire right into a Vikings safety. 

Flores let Purdy get into his own head on the second interception. 

Purdy's mind had to be going a million miles an hour, driving down the field in a two-minute drill. He's rarely been in this position as part of a dominant 49ers team. Flores used that to his advantage. 

Rather than speeding Purdy up with a blitz, Flores called off the dogs and flooded the coverage with eight bodies. Purdy — on the fritz because he knows there isn't a window to be found anywhere — ends up throwing a prayer right at Vikings S Cam Bynum

That's just a quick look into what Flores has been doing to offenses all year. It's not been perfect — far from it — but he's giving this team a chance by making quarterbacks think on every single down. 

The best quarterbacks in the league won’t fall into the trap, but the best quarterbacks would shred this defense no matter what. At least Flores is cooking up a plan to beat the other 25 or so quarterbacks. 

Primetime Kirk?

Lucky for Flores, he wasn't alone in trying to topple the 49ers. Cousins and the Vikings passing offense, even without their star receiver, took it to a 49ers defense that had been one of the best in the league all season. They did just enough to make good on Flores' 17-point stand. 

Cousins had one of those Cousins games. Not like the "Oh no, he threw two interceptions and had a comically bad strip sack" game. But the "Oh yeah, Cousins is a 12-year veteran with a pretty good arm and can sling it sometimes" game. 

There are about three of those games apiece every season. The Vikings rolled high by getting the latter on Monday night. 

On 45 attempts, Cousins threw for 378 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Technically, you could explain the interception away as Jordan Addison getting bullied at the catch point. 

However, Addison repaid the favor with a touchdown by stealing the ball from a defensive back right before the half. After six weeks of unlucky bounces, simply going even with the football gods was all Cousins needed to deliver maybe his best performance of the year. 

But again, Cousins just does that sometimes. There are games where he looks like he's possessed by Peyton Manning. There are also games where he loses in a way that only he knows how. That's the Cousins experience. The Vikings were lucky they got the right side of the coin at the right time against the right team. 

Vikings Still Have Long Road

Important a win as it was, this doesn't get the Vikings out of the weeds just yet. They would still be out of the playoffs if the postseason started today. There's still a lot of work to be done, and other seventh-seed hopefuls like the Buccaneers, Saints and Rams aren't going away. 

Monday night's win was a start, though. This was the first time the Vikings beat a serious football team all year long. But more than that, it proved their unique defense and a good day out of Cousins is a recipe for winning games. 

Derrik Klassen is an NFL and NFL Draft film analyst with a particular interest in quarterbacks. Klassen’s work is also featured on Bleacher Report and Reception Perception. You can follow him on Twitter (X) at @QBKlass.