Vikings

Breaking Down Kirk Cousins' Perplexing Performance Against Green Bay

Photo credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

Usually when you look at Kirk Cousins‘ box score after a game, you know exactly how he played, for better or worse. For that reason, though, his performance in the Minnesota Vikings season opener is tough to square. Cousins went 19-of-25 for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns, yet his interception may have been the single-most result-swinging play of the game.

When you look at the the game tape — well, the broadcast view at least — that looks upside-down, too. Cousins’ best handful of plays were outside the pocket, either scrambling to throw or just taking off with it by himself. Meanwhile, the play-action game was almost non-existent and Cousins did not really get into much of a rhythm in the drop back game until the fourth quarter rolled around. By then, especially on the last couple drives, it’s tough to say whether Cousins settled in or if the Packers had just let up on the gas. Maybe a bit of both.

Even from the first drive, Cousins was making plays outside of the pocket. On 2nd-and-3 from his own 32-yard line, Cousins shimmied out of a cluttered pocket, drifted to his right, and found Adam Thielen down the sideline for a 25-yard gain.

Cousins did not look flustered at all when his initial read was taken away. When Cousins had to move off his spot, he didn’t look uncertain about how to do it or where to go. He immediately made his move, recalculated and found his target down the field. Cousins isn’t always that sharp when plays break down, but he has his moments.

He had a couple more of them in the third quarter, too. Cousins strung together back-to-back scrambles that each netted a fresh set of downs. Moreover, Cousins’ 34 rushing yards on the day were the most he has ever earned a single game with Minnesota — his previous high was 28 yards. Even if just by a few yards, Cousins setting his single-game rushing record as a Viking drives home how unusual this game was.

In his own dopey way, Cousins showed off some wheels on these two plays. Though the second clip is a bit clunkier than the first due to a near pass attempt, the confidence and quick decision making in committing to the run on both plays was refreshing to see out of him. Cousins had picked up another short gain earlier in the game due in part to that same confidence and snappy decision making. Cousins isn’t usually so eager to hoof it, but for whatever reason he seemed just fine doing so in this game.

Still, none of the normal pillars of Cousins’ game were present. It felt like his other spectacular efforts were for naught. Play-action, in particular, was absent from the Vikings game plan. Considering Gary Kubiak‘s reputation as the offensive coordinator, and that he was a coaching assistant last year, you would still expect the Vikings to be a heavy play-action offense. That just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

What’s worse is that the Vikings’ lone play-action attempt was a banger. Early in the fourth quarter, Cousins nailed Thielen on a deep corner from the slot for a touchdown.

By all accounts, this is the version of the offense many of us expected to see throughout the whole game. Under-center, 21 personnel, hard play fake — the whole deal. And yet, this was literally the only play-action pass Cousins threw all game.

To be clear, Cousins is not at fault for the lack of play-action. If anything, he is the victim of its absence more than anyone else. He threw just five passes total in the first half. That said, it is worth trying to sort out how the Vikings ended up with so few play-action calls when it was expected to be their identity.

The easy answer is time of possession. During the first half, the Vikings only had 7 minutes, 15 seconds of possession compared to the almost 23 minutes the Packers had. Minnesota only finished the game with 18:44 minutes of possession, so it isn’t like the second half was a whole lot better on that front. After the first drive, Minnesota spent basically the rest of the half either backed up deep in their own territory or trying to march down the field with less than a minute to go in a hurry-up situation.

Perhaps the most interesting part, however, is that the Vikings attempted one play-action pass over that span. Cousins never got the ball off, though, and was instead sacked in the end zone for a safety.

Green Bay’s cornerback to the short side of the field starts in an off-coverage alignment. Even from the short side of the field, any outside cornerback playing off is not going to be a blitzer. That is just way too much ground to cover. When the receiver shifts towards the center of the formation, though, Green Bay’s cornerback kicks into a different gear.

Following the game, cornerback Jaire Alexander said he read run and “shot [his] shot” with the blitz. It was not a designed play, but rather an instinctive player betting on himself to make a play by abandoning his post. Had Cousins somehow been able to get the ball off, perhaps with some better blocking, the Packers would have had to pay for Alexander’s risk-taking. Instead, the gambling cornerback took down Cousins for a couple of points and a change of possession.

Between getting choked out in time of possession, being well behind on the scoreboard come halftime and having their one first-half play-action attempt get sniffed out, maybe it isn’t so crazy that the Vikings ended up abandoning play-action the way they did. It is unfortunate that play-action passing went by the wayside, but the reasoning behind it can at least be somewhat understood.

For as painful as it was for Cousins that the offense abandoned play-action, his play right before the half all but ensured the Vikings would not be able to get to many play-actions concepts in the second half. His interception was the single-most damaging play of the game.

Second-and-10, 34 seconds left, stuck on your own 25-yard line. With all three timeouts, getting into field goal range is actually quite reasonable. Not likely, but reasonable. With that in mind, Cousins tried to press the issue and force a pass to Thielen on the sideline. Late penetration in the pocket seemed to have spooked Cousins from fully driving on the throw, however. Just as Cousins was going to throw, you can see him drop all his weight back and never really bring his torso into the throw. The ball doesn’t quite get the heat or placement Cousins was looking for, resulting in a pass that ended up well behind its target for an easy Packers interception. Cousins still could have thrown a good ball with those mechanics from that position, he just made it tougher on himself than he should have.

The interception wasn’t that bad in a vacuum. It was ugly, but the Vikings probably weren’t getting points on that drive anyway. The issue is that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers uncorked a 45-yard screamer to Marquez Valdes-Scantling two plays later. Instead of being down 15-7 at the half, the Vikings entered the locker room at a 22-7 deficit — a deficit they were unable to overcome. Cousins can’t go play cornerback and prevent the Rodgers touchdown from happening, of course, but he shouldn’t be giving the Packers offense any more opportunities than they were already getting.

Minnesota’s defense was an issue for Cousins as well. Even when Cousins got rolling in the fourth quarter with a few consecutive scoring drives, the Vikings defense continued to allow those scores to be reciprocated. Every time the offense clawed back to an even score, the Packers offense put the game out of reach again. Back and forth, back and forth, and so on. It felt like we were watching Cousins chase a carrot on a stick in the second half.

All of that puts Cousins’ performance in an awkward space. For most of the game, Cousins did well with what he was given. He scrambled and made some plays with his legs in limited opportunities through the first three quarters before leading a shootout (to no avail) in the fourth quarter. And still, it was Cousins’ interception right before the half put the Vikings in such a compromising spot coming out of the half. That was the moment the game went from bad to worse.

The good news is, the version of Cousins that handled business for 90% of the game is more likely to be the version of him that matters moving forward. Assuming the Vikings defense does not continue to be this bad and their offense can stay in more favorable game states early to conduct offense the way they want to, you have to imagine Cousins will play and produce the same as he always has. Even if the defense doesn’t fully recover, we aren’t likely to see many more games in which the offense ends up with just over seven minutes of possession in the first half.

Next week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts will be an opportunity for Cousins and the offense to set things straight. Second-year Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew completed 19-of-20 passes against the Colts defense this weekend with Keelan Cole Jr. as his leading receiver. No disrespect to Cole, but Thielen alone is miles better than anyone the Jaguars have, never mind what Olabisi Johnson and Justin Jefferson can show. Hopefully Cousins gets more opportunities in next Sunday’s game to keep the offense ahead of schedule and on the scoreboard before things spiral out of control.

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