Hailed as one of the league’s preeminent play-action passers by coaches, teammates and opponents alike, Kirk Cousins had a rough go of it last Sunday when asked to execute his signature play.
Cousins went 4 of 9 for 23 yards, no touchdowns, one scramble and one game-altering interception out of play-action in the 21-16 loss to the Packers. He posted a league-low passer rating of 12.0 in those situations, by far his lowest in 18 games with the Vikings. After a successful play-action to Adam Thielen for 20 yards on the game’s first drive, he generated just three yards using the concept.
The quarterback accepted a large chunk of the blame for Minnesota’s loss after turning the football over three times on the day, and he bore responsibility as well for his lack of success in play-action, especially his indefensible late-game throw toward Stefon Diggs in the back of the end zone.
Ultimately, though, the Packers deserve credit for scheming to take away Cousins’ greatest skill, leaving the Vikings passer with little recourse but a throw-away on many of his play-action opportunities. If only, Vikings fans lament, Cousins had treated that final INT with the same conservatism.
Green Bay conceded running lanes to the Vikings on numerous occasions, part of the reason Minnesota tallied nearly 200 ground yards. The tradeoff was having edge defenders like Preston Smith and Dean Lowry waiting for Cousins on play-action rollouts.
“It’s partly why the run was effective,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “because they weren’t challenging the run a lot of times. The outside guys weren’t rushing or they weren’t squeezing down on the runs so the cut back lanes were there.”
On three of Cousins’ 10 play-action dropbacks, he faced immediate unblocked edge pressure that resulted in two throw-aways and one dumpoff to Irv Smith Jr. for a loss of yardage.
Here’s a sampling of what he faced after those three play fakes.
On several other plays, Green Bay’s coverage was sound, forcing the play to break down like when Cousins had to scramble out of the pocket and gained six yards. He also had a first-quarter throw-away when there were no receivers open — further evidence that Cousins was comfortable throwing the ball away until his fateful red zone pick.
Cousins also had two chances to make things happen off play-action that went awry. Diggs dropped a third-down pass over the middle in the second quarter that resulted in a punt. Then in the third quarter Cousins threw late to Thielen on a play-action deep ball in the end zone that ended up with Thielen getting flagged for offensive pass interference.
“I think it starts with just not making throws,” Cousins said of his lack of success. “I think that’s where it starts. I think we hit one early on the first drive of the game, hit a play-action to Adam. The next one threw away. One to the end zone to Adam probably could have, should have run, just taken off and run. I guess a variety of plays have a variety of reasons but the bottom line is I felt like people were open when you watch the film. You just want to make those throws, make those clean reads and learn from the ones that weren’t very good.”
The greater concern might be: Does Sunday’s result throw a wrench into Minnesota’s plan to be a run-first team that sets Cousins up for play-action? After all, the Vikings generated just 16 points despite averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Conditions couldn’t have been better.
“We’ll take the runs all day if they’re going to play pass,” Zimmer said Wednesday.
That may be true, but the Vikings will need a robust passing game in order to finish drives. Last Sunday the Vikings made four trips to the Green Bay 40-yard line or closer (excluding their touchdowns, which came from 75 and 45 yards out). They came away with just three total points.
If Green Bay wasn’t spooked by a 75-yard touchdown run and 198 yards on the ground, other teams may be emboldened in the future to strip the Vikings of their play-action prowess.