Haled as a play-action guru by his teammates, coaches and opponents alike, Kirk Cousins isn’t shy about sharing what elements go into the construction of a successful play-action pass play. The Vikings quarterback has detailed how drawing up proper route concepts, selling meshes with the running back and even an offensive lineman’s demeanor can make or break a play fake.
This is the best thing Cousins does as a quarterback, and for four weeks it wasn’t really clicking.
Granted, the Vikings’ wins in Week 1 and Week 3 didn’t require much sleight of hand as they rushed the football a combined 76 times en route to two big wins. But in losses at Green Bay and Chicago, Cousins combined to go just 8 of 14 with no touchdowns and one interception on the play-action. Through four weeks, Cousins ranked 34th in play-action passer rating (80.7).
“I stood here, I believe it was after the Bears game, and I felt there were a lot of questions about our lack of effectiveness,” Cousins recalled Wednesday, “and I said, ‘Honestly, it boils down to we’ve missed a couple of shots in our play-action game.’ And I said, ‘If we had hit those, I think we’d be feeling a lot differently. It’s not a litany of issues.'”
The Vikings went from their season’s low point to its high point in just two weeks, delivering two straight wins to move to 4-2, and Cousins’ play-action passing is a big reason why. Since Stefon Diggs skipped practice and Cousins was put under scrutiny for an off-hand “apology” comment to Adam Thielen, he’s responded by turning in two prolific play-action performances.
In Weeks 5 and 6, Cousins is 19 of 24 with four touchdowns via the play-action with a league-high 383 yards and a perfect passer rating of 158.3 (tied with Russell Wilson).
“It was helpful to get a rhythm going these last couple weeks,” Cousins said. “I think that when the season starts you’re kind of learning what you are and what works well and you’re figuring that out early in the year. I think it was a good confidence boost the last couple weeks to have games where we felt like we found a little bit of an identity, in addition to our run game, which we saw earlier in the year.”
The last two games played out in stark contrast to his Week 2 outing at Green Bay, where he had arguably the worst game of his career. Cousins was 4 of 9 with an interception on play-action against the Packers as Green Bay sold out to stop it by planting a rusher on the edge to prevent the bootleg, sacrificing rushing yards in exchange.
No other team has tried to mimic the Packers, perhaps because of Minnesota’s increasing success on the ground — and the expansion of its playbook.
“It’s something that defenses can take away,” said Cousins, referring to the rollout, “and if they do, you can’t expect to have it. You have to move on, because it can be a very negative play, too. If they play it right, you can be sacked, you can come out of the fake and have a problem. What it gives us, though, is an ability to have an answer to your outside zone or your run game, to have a complement to that, where teams can’t just load up to stop that outside zone. They have to understand that there’s a possibility that there’s a pass play coming back the other way. It gives you a chance to move the pocket so that the pass rush can’t just pin their ears back and rush to a spot in between the line.
“When you can run the football well, execute play action, execute screens, you can protect in the drop-back game, you can get guys open versus man coverage, now you are starting to have success in a lot of different areas and that’s when you start to say, ‘Hey, that team is tough to defend.'”
Minnesota seems to be experiencing the fruits of its labor, having spent the first four weeks of the season relentlessly running the football. Thielen and Diggs have back-to-back 100-yard games, respectively, in large part because defenses are loading the box against running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. Last December, when the Vikings finished the 2018 regular season on a 2-3 slide, Diggs and Thielen encountered myriad double teams that neutralized the team’s passing game. Those doubles have subsided now that the Vikings are less one-dimensional.
“I feel like we were a pass-heavy team last year,” Diggs said Wednesday. “That can also play a key part in being doubled. We didn’t run the ball a lot last year. Knowing that we were going to pass the ball, they were kind of playing to our strength at that point last year. Up to this point, I feel like we’ve been running the ball pretty well. It’s kind of hard to double.”
The Detroit Lions, Sunday’s opponent, have a propensity to double-team receivers as they did frequently with Thielen in Week 9 last year. Opposing quarterbacks are 32 of 43 on play-action against the Lions this year but have yet to throw for a touchdown.
“I think with their running game going the way it is, they do an outstanding job of marrying up the run and the play-action plays and really making that very difficult for the defense to decipher between the two of them,” said Lions head coach Matt Patricia. “Coach Stefanski’s doing an outstanding job of putting those packages together, the formations, the motions, the ball handling, and it’s drawing a lot of attention from the defenses. … You’ve got to play disciplined football, you’ve got to have really good eye control, and you’ve really got to make sure you’re reading your keys.”
The Vikings’ play-action game can be as clear-cut as a fully-extended fake handoff and subtle as a head tilt, like the one Cousins used on his first touchdown pass to Diggs last Sunday.
— NFL (@NFL) October 13, 2019
The quarterback laid out the minutiae of the Vikings’ different fakes, which all have accompanying run plays that look similar.
“You just want to have all your plays look the same and marry together,” he said. “So when you have a run, you want to complement it with pass and vice versa. … We have them organized all differently, so like the draw fake into a pass we have in a different column than the true handoff fake into a pass which we have into a different column than the true bootleg. I don’t know when people break them down if they call that all play action, but to me those are all different and we look at them as different plays with different elements.”
At least for now, Kirk Cousins, the play-action whisperer, has returned.