Cousins Stood No Chance Against the Tampa Bay Pass Rush

Photo Credit: Kim Klement (USA TODAY Sports)

Heading into the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, everyone assumed there would be a good deal of pressure forced by Todd Bowles’ defense. Bowles loves to blitz and the Vikings’ offensive line is not very good. It’s a pretty simple equation. The degree to which that pressure got home, however, is almost hard to fathom.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back 47 times on Sunday. Per Pro Football Focus, Cousins was pressured on 22 of those dropbacks. That puts Tampa Bay’s pressure rate around 46.8%. Cousins took off to run on a handful of occasions and was also sacked six different times, leaving him with only 37 attempts on his 47 dropbacks. Whatever any of us want to say about how Cousins handles pressure, that volume of pressure is insurmountable for most quarterbacks. Cousins knew no peace on Sunday.

The Vikings offense then ended up in a spot where they had to live off short passing and four-to-eight yard gains. While that can work, that style of play is contingent on a couple of things. One, the quarterback has to be as sharp as ever and avoid mental mistakes. To Cousins’ credit, that was mostly true, especially with regards to ever putting the ball in danger of being picked off. He was pretty clean in that regard and only had a couple of blips when pressured, which was bound to happen over that many instances.

That style of play is also reliant on getting into and converting on third-and-manageable, however. The Vikings largely failed to convert on those instances, finishing just 5-of-15 on the day.

A number of those failed conversions obviously came from sacks. Cousins was sacked six times in total on four separate drives, killing all four drives. Not every sack was on third down, but many of them were, and a couple of others were on second down and set up for unreasonable third downs.

What’s frustrating is that, at least early on, the Bucs were not getting home on third-down sacks because they were blitzing. On both first-half sacks, they simply rushed four and jammed the hell out of Minnesota’s receivers over the middle of the field, disrupting any semblance of timing Cousins was trying to work with.

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The second play is especially impressive from Bucs linebacker Devin White. At the start, White does a nice job turning his hips to the No. 3 (inside receiver to trips) and carrying him up the field to pass off to the safety. White then completes the pass off and flips his hips back around to fire downhill. Knowing the No. 3 is running a corner route, White probably assumes the Vikings are running a common two-high red zone beater, “Double-China 7.”

The concept also features two five-and-in routes from the outside receivers, which is what White comes back to defend. He does an excellent job jamming Jefferson and completely halting his movement, taking away the underneath window Cousins clearly wanted to hit upon his return to this side of the concept. By the time Cousins realized the window was closed, the Bucs defensive line had collapsed the pocket enough to take him down.

Throughout the rest of the match, Cousins’ handling of pressure was up and down. Seeing as he was pressured 22 times, it makes sense that we would see a fair bit of both sides of the Cousins coin. As per usual, the issue for him came primarily when he needed to find someone open on the fly or make a creative move out of the pocket. When just standing in to deliver to targets he had already determined, he was as good as ever. The problem for Cousins has never really been about willingness, but about creativity, and that proved true again versus the Bucs.

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For example, Cousins handles the pressure on this play well in large part because he already knows where he wants his eyes. Considering the outside cornerbacks were playing at depth and did not follow Adam Thielen across the formation, Cousins probably knew this would be some form of Cover 3, leaving a hook player (linebacker in this case) to match the corner route. Following the play-action fake, Cousins hits the top of his drop and takes his eyes right to the tight end. Since he already knows how he wants to attack this and has a good indication that the throw will be available, Cousins shows no real hesitation in moving, resetting and hitting this throw from just outside the pocket.

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This time, however, Cousins’ brain short circuits as soon as the pocket collapses. In fairness, having a lineman pushed into your lap is not ideal, but Cousins has seldom really shown the ability to turn on the creative “switch” and bail right away. He is often slow to get to scramblin’ and does not even really try to on this play. He takes a step out wide to free a lane for his throwing arm, then tosses a half-baked throw to Chad Beebe that honestly may have been intercepted if it had a bit more juice on it. Maybe this was supposed to be a throwaway, but that’s a risky way to do it, and it’s more damning that it’s not really clear what Cousins was trying to accomplish here. He just felt pressure and wanted the ball out.

In all, despite some of the clunky plays like the one above, Cousins was fine against pressure. He did not do any of the hero stuff that, say, Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes (or even Josh Allen) can do, but he did not toss any interceptions, which is something he can not say very often this year.

Alas, none of Cousins’ quick passing or disaster-avoidance versus pressure ended up mattering. Thanks in part to Tampa Bay’s two-high safety defense, the Vikings never really found the chunk plays they needed and were not quite efficient enough otherwise. Cousins deserves some blame for not being able to test some of those windows anyway, but we already know that to be true of him, so it’s not like this was unexpected.

Per Football Outsiders, that loss moves the Vikings to just a 15.3% chance of making the playoffs. Taking down the Bears next week would be a huge boon for their chances, though. Hopefully, Cousins can let loose down the field a bit more and the offensive line can hold up against the pass-rush to keep the Vikings’ playoff hopes alive.

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