The biggest reason the 2018 Vikings missed the playoffs, according to many fans and pundits, was Kirk Cousins’ alleged inability to play under pressure.
Where Case Keenum in 2017 overcame bad pass protection by sensing and adjusting to pressure, Kirk Cousins in 2018 lacked the pocket presence to win games in spite of poor blocking. Or so the narrative goes.
But that narrative is wrong. Kirk Cousins in 2018 had an above-average PFF grade under pressure and had the seventh-best passer rating under pressure. And while those stats are not very predictive of how Cousins will play in 2019, they do tell us that the 2018 Vikings weren’t losing games because of Cousins’ pocket presence, because Cousins was at least statistically above average under pressure.
But beyond the stat sheet, Kirk Cousins’ pocket presence showed remarkable improvement in 2018. I re-watched every Kirk Cousins drop back in 2018 and have put together over 100 plays from last year to show just how:
Standing Tall In the Face of Pressure
One of the hallmarks of good pocket presence is whether a quarterback can stand tall and deliver throws with defenders in their face. Cousins proved he could right away last year:
This touchdown throw came with the Vikings down eight points, with 30 seconds left in the game, and with all 300 pounds of Mike Daniels torpedoing into Cousins’ frame.
Cousins didn’t flinch. Under heavy pressure in every sense of the word, Cousins delivered the game-saving touchdown.
That unflinching toughness was on display throughout the year, but especially in the Eagles game, where even the cameraman was not sure Cousins was getting these throws off:
Climbing the Pocket
But more important than being able to take big hits is moving in the pocket to avoid getting hit in the first place.
No one hits the quarterback more than edge rushers. And there’s no better way to counter edge pressure than “climbing the pocket” – stepping up in the pocket beyond the reach of the edge rushers:
The Bears blitz on this third down play, and both edge rushers beat their blockers. Cousins immediately feels the pressure, steps up in the pocket and hits Diggs in stride for 11 yards and a big first down.
It’s a subtle thing, but it makes a world of difference for edge rushers and offensive tackles. And it’s a big part of what makes Tom Brady or Drew Brees so deadly from the pocket.
It’s also an area Cousins has had to improve on – you can see from Cousins’ film in Washington how often he failed to climb the pocket and left himself a sitting duck for sacks and strip sacks.
But 2018 was a new year for Cousins:
That’s a marked improvement, which you can see more examples of here.
It’s not perfect – there were a number of plays where Cousins reverted to old, bad habits – but it’s a heck of a lot better than it used to be.
Sliding Away From Pressure
But pocket presence takes a lot more than just climbing the pocket: a quarterback has to be able to sense pressure from any direction and slide or sidestep away from it. This next play is only a short checkdown, but to me it’s one of Cousins’ most impressive plays from last year:
Cousins reads the full field here in just three seconds, but unfortunately for him, the Patriots have everyone locked down in coverage. While working through his progressions, Cousins sets and resets his feet to be ready to quickly fire the ball to the next read. Sensing the penetrating DT, Cousins sidesteps left without missing a beat, and then feeling the edge pressure, resets and delivers for the checkdown right before getting hit.
Yes, the end result is just a short completion, but it’s that footwork and composure that makes the best throws under pressure possible.
And it wasn’t just on the checkdowns – Cousins’ demonstrated great footwork and the ability to reset his feet or subtly slide in the pocket throughout 2018:
Adjusting the Throwing Platform
But sometimes even the best footwork can’t thwart the pass rush. That’s when it’s on the quarterback to navigate a broken pocket and change up his throwing form to still get the pass out. And while in previous years Cousins’ pocket mechanics could be a bit robotic, in 2018 he showed he had a little backyard football in him as well:
Normally from a clean pocket, quarterbacks should step into their throws. But when you have two defensive linemen barreling down at you, it helps to have the adaptability and arm strength to drive the ball 24 yards downfield off your back foot.
Cousins was under pressure on 38.9 percent of his 2018 drop backs, the fifth-most of any starting quarterback, so Cousins frequently had to break the quarterback mechanics rulebook to get his passes off. Luckily for the Vikings, Cousins was pretty consistently able to do just that:
Extending the Play
But pocket presence only works if there is a pocket. When the pocket collapses, the best quarterbacks find ways to extend the play outside of the pocket, whether that’s Russell Wilson magically eluding a would-be tackler or Aaron Rodgers rolling out to buy time for a deep touchdown pass.
Cousins is not the same kind of athlete as Wilson or Rodgers, but last year he found ways to extend plays both by eluding players in the pocket:
…and by rolling out of the pocket to make the most out of bad situations:
Cousins’ pristine pocket mechanics make him more accurate and effective within the pocket than out of it, but last year he demonstrated that he still can keep plays alive in ways that some other starting quarterbacks can’t.
Where Cousins Can Still Improve
All that is not to say Cousins secretly has elite pocket presence. While he showed substantial improvement last year, he still has plenty of room to get better.
Despite doing a better job climbing the pocket, Cousins still too often finished his drops flat footed, standing like a statue like a sitting duck for edge rushers. A good portion of Cousins’ sacks and pressures could have been avoided had he just stepped up:
In Cousins’ defense, poor interior pass blocking meant there often wasn’t much of a pocket to step up into, and he was early to react to pressure more often than he was late.
While Cousins bears a lot of blame on some of his sacks, the bulk of his sacks were unavoidable – in fact, many came before Cousins even finished his drop:
And plenty other sacks came in spite of good pocket movement:
Still, while Cousins may have gotten better at reacting to pressure, his old habits are sometimes dying hard.
Speaking of old habits, in 2017, Kirk Cousins threw nine interceptions when under pressure, which was tied for most in the NFL. In 2018, that number shrunk down to five, (and two of those picks weren’t his fault – one came after a Treadwell drop; the other was the Saints’ pick-six where Diggs stopped his route right as Cousins threw to him).
But despite the improvement, pressure still clouded Cousins’ decision-making at times:
Moreover, Cousins’ typically pristine pocket mechanics often broke down under pressure, leading to wildly errant throws:
And perhaps Cousins’ biggest flaw is what doesn’t show up on tape – the throws he doesn’t make. Sure, Cousins has countless examples of adroitly moving in the pocket… only to pick up a couple yards on a checkdown. But you rarely see him responding to pressure by challenging defenses downfield.
That issue carried over to Cousins’ struggles from a clean pocket, too. Cousins had the third-lowest percentage of negatively-graded throws last year, and the fourth-lowest percentage of turnover-worthy plays. That’s fantastic – except it came at the cost of extreme risk aversion: Cousins had one of the lowest average depths of target last year and the fifth-lowest percentage of positively-graded plays.
A lot of that might be due partially to offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and the offensive scheme, but at least some of it stems from Cousins being all too willing to throw short of the sticks or hit the checkdown over throwing it up to his receivers downfield.
All that said, you will notice the lowlight reels are much shorter than the highlight reels. A few picks, some errant throws and a handful of unnecessary sacks don’t eclipse all the other examples of good pocket presence.
In Conclusion, Kirk Cousins’ Pocket Presence Doesn’t Suck
Last year, after re-watching all of Kirk Cousins’ Washington drop backs, I wrote that “Cousins’ worst attribute is his pocket presence,” that he “doesn’t have a good feel for the impending pass rush,” that “[h]is decision-making completely falls apart once he starts to feel pressure” and that his “throwing mechanics and footwork also go completely out the window” under pressure.
That might have been true in the past, but Cousins showed substantial improvement in 2018: he responded more quickly to pressure, climbed the pocket fairly regularly, slid away from or eluded would-be sack attempts, and extended plays beyond the pocket every game.
Obviously, he’s no Tom Brady. He still sometimes got caught standing like a statue at the top of his drop. He had his fair share of bad throws and bad decisions under pressure. And too often he lacked the downfield aggressiveness to keep the Vikings ahead of the chains.
But Cousins’ pocket presence was not the reason the Vikings missed the playoffs last year. The 2018 Vikings had far too many flaws that were far too complicated to pin the blame on Cousins’ pocket presence – especially because Cousins’ pocket presence last year was actually surprisingly solid.