American Football

Expect The Vikings To Use More Big Nickel Sub-Packages This Season


New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The team should use their safety depth to their advantage

Shortly after the Minnesota Vikings drafted Lewis Cine, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah spoke to reporters and hinted that the Vikings could have both Camryn Bynum and Lewis Cine on the field at the same time. Cine continued to receive praise from defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who compared the rookie first-rounder to Harrison Smith, in that both players can line up everywhere on the field which gives the Vikings a lot of versatility.

A couple of months later at the beginning of training camp, Donatell was asked about the competition at safety between Bynum and Cine. Specifically, what he needs to see to make a decision on who wins the starting job. What’s interesting here, is that while Donatell gave a non-answer, he also floated the idea of the Vikings potentially playing three safety sub-packages to get the best players on the field together. Donatell’s remark was completely unprompted, and it was the first time a Vikings coach publicly stated that the use of three safety sub-packages could be a possibility.

“Those are questions that our observation skills will take over. We’re gonna expose those guys to everything. You know, are we gonna have some three safety packages? Does one play nickel, while the other plays dime? Or do they both need time watching other people? We don’t know the answer to that, but I’m very encouraged by both of them. Encouraged by how hard they study and work.” – Ed Donatell

Then things took a turn for the worse. Lewis Cine suffered a gruesome season-ending ankle injury in Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints in London. It was so bad, that Lewis left Tottenham Hotspur stadium in the back of an ambulance, and had to remain in London after the team flew back to the United States until his emergency surgery and initial recovery process was completed.

It’s hard to say whether or not Cine would’ve been an impact player on the Vikings’ defense his rookie year. On one hand, Cine was only getting special teams reps when he was healthy the first four weeks of the regular season. However, he was a first-round pick and it seemed like Ed Donatell had a plan to slowly acclimate him from his special teams role to more of a rotational player as the season — and his development progressed. That never came to fruition, and the Vikings ended up having the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense in 2022 and Donatell was fired after only one season as the Vikings defensive coordinator.

Now that Brian Flores is the new defensive coordinator, there are going to be a lot of changes in both philosophy and scheme. Gone are the days of constantly playing a soft Cover 2 defense. Flores is all about being aggressive and pressuring the quarterback. That means you can expect to see a lot more Cover 1 and Cover 0. It also means that the Vikings need cornerbacks who can hold their own in man coverage. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the Vikings’ desire for positional versatility. Flores wants cornerbacks who can play safety, safeties that can play nickel, and slot corners who can also play outside.

Minnesota added a few players who fit the bill. Joejuan Williams is a tall cornerback who could play some snaps at strong safety. Jay Ward is a safety who played a good amount of snaps in the slot at LSU. Then you have Byron Murphy and Mekhi Blackmon who both offer inside/outside versatility at cornerback, which is particularly useful when opposing offenses use pre-snap motions to advantageous 1v1 matchups. Add in returning players like Lewis Cine, Cam Bynum, and Andrew Booth Jr. and suddenly Brian Flores has a fair amount of versatile players he can move around the defense like chess pieces.

The big question is, “How do all these pieces fit into the puzzle?” Where does a player like Lewis Cine fit into the picture with Harrison Smith, Cam Bynum, and honorary team captain Josh Metellus? If Cine wins a starting role, does that mean we could see Cam Bynum play more cornerback this year? What about Andrew Booth Jr and Akayleb Evans? Will they both start, or can Mekhi Blackmon win a starting role right out of the gate? Is Jay Ward better as a rotational player who plays at nickel, as a special teams ace, or both?

Although none of those questions can be definitively answered until training camp, one thing is clear. With the sheer amount of positional versatility and young talent the Vikings have in the secondary, I would expect to see a lot more three safety packages to ensure the Vikings can get the best players on the field all at once.

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