Deep Dive on Kirk Cousins' First Half Meltdown Against the Falcons

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

My send-off for last week’s Kirk Cousins deep dive was: “At least the Vikings now get a pseudo-bye week against the Atlanta Falcons followed by a legit bye week before they go on a three-game NFC North stretch.” After a just-okay game against the Seattle Seahawks, this week’s Atlanta game was supposed to be an opportunity to bounce back. The Falcons entered Week 6 with the third-worst pass defense, per DVOA, as well as third-worst in points per game allowed. Cousins and the gang should have been able to ravage the Falcons pass defense, especially seeing as this was their first game since firing head coach Dan Quinn.

Suffice to say, things did not turn out as they should have. Cousins got to pad his stats towards the end of the game, but he was a nightmare through the first half. He threw all three of his picks in the first half, allowing the Falcons to cruise to a 20-0 lead heading into the locker rooms. When Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan took the first snap after the half, Atlanta held a 95.6% win probability over Minnesota.

The Vikings’ first play from scrimmage set the tone for the day. Cousins threw an egregious interception on a standard 1st-and-10 play-action concept. The pass hit a linebacker dead in the hands.

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Cousins has thrown some variation of this concept 1,000 times in his career. Deep over from one side, deep post from the other, with some sort of underneath checkdown option. It’s as standard as play-action passing gets. He has thrown it against Cover 3, which the Falcons are in, more often than not, too. And yet, in this instance, Cousins forgets where the weak (field side) hook player can be.

The weak hook (Deion Jones, 45) stays low for a brief moment waiting to see if the tight end leaks out, but once the tight end sticks in pass pro, the weak hook defender bails up the hash and looks to cut any crossers. Cousins does not respect it, for whatever reason, and hits Jones right on the mitts.

Minnesota’s $30 million quarterback has thrown some outrageous picks, especially this season, but that is legitimately one of the worst. There is no coverage trickery or spectacular effort by the defense. Even last week’s interception required a phenomenal one-handed catch from K.J. Wright. This was a blatant misread of a simple, common coverage, and Cousins delivered the ball straight to the defender.

The offense’s next play from scrimmage was not any better. If anything, it only solidified that the Falcons defense had the Vikings’ number.

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Here the Vikings try to get into some of their base play-action stuff again, this time with the boot action. A common answer for dealing with boot action, as Green Bay has showcased the past two seasons, is to full-on pressure the boot side immediately and have a player not on the line of scrimmage handle the player coming across into the flat.

The Falcons look to be in a simple “Man Free” look (Cover 1 without the rat/robber), with SAM Edmond Robinson rushing from the offense’s right as the fifth pass-rusher. Robinson gets straight after Cousins, while cornerback AJ Terrell is shadowing wide receiver Justin Jefferson all over the formation.

What really helps put the play over the top for the Falcons, though, is that three-tech Allen Bailey got a hand on Jefferson cutting across into the flat. Normally, the edge/apex defender (which should have been Robinson) gets put in a bind between jamming the flat player or chasing the quarterback. The Falcons got the best of both worlds this time, though, because of a heads-up veteran effort from Bailey, which Terrell capitalized on with a speedy tackle in the backfield.

This was not the last time the Falcons were all over the Vikings’ play-action concepts, either. Later in the half, linebacker Foye Oluokun executed a wonderful “ROBOT” (roll and run) technique to cut off one of Minnesota’s intermediate routes on a 1st-and-10 play-action concept.

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Oluokun (54) is the linebacker to the field in this clip. He slides to the run side first, but never quite steps down to commit. Oluokun soon realizes that it is a play-action rather than a legit run, so he flips his hips and takes a slight angle towards the hash he initially vacated as a means to cut off any crosser over the middle. In doing so, Oluokun was able to get his head around in a hurry and find Jefferson snapping his route off between the hashes, where Oluokun was in position to move over and cover. The well-executed technique from Oluokun got Cousins’ brain to freeze, ultimately resulting in a throwaway.

And yet, Cousins’ worst play of the drive was two plays later. After a useless second down run, the Vikings were in 3rd and 9. They came out in an empty formation, while Atlanta’s defense loaded the line of scrimmage and put two safeties deep. Cousins again misread what the Falcons defense was doing and threw his second interception of the day.

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Before the snap, the Falcons have the line of scrimmage peppered, while one of their two deep safeties is playing tight to the middle of the formation over the hash. Given the on-screen safety’s alignment, the quarterback may assume that safety is going to drop down to cover where one of Atlanta’s linebackers would be blitzing from. However, both Falcons linebackers bail off the line and into coverage, while Atlanta’s safeties each take off to the sideline to cover deep halves.

The Falcons got into Cover 2, which gives the field cornerback (Terrell, 24) the freedom to keep eyes on the quarterback and drive on anything underneath. Cousins must have assumed Terrell would carry the No. 1 (outside receiver), so he tries to fit in a ball to the No. 2 at the sticks. Terrell closes on and scoops a poor throw off the dirt for an interception.

This interception is a bit less embarrassing than the first. An NFL quarterback should be able to see the safeties bail off the hashes and know something is up, but this was a well-disguised underneath coverage from the Falcons. Terrell also made an outstanding effort to get to this ball. It is still a bad play from Cousins, don’t get me wrong. But this is closer to the kind of interception that you get over, as opposed to the atrocity on the opening play of this game.

As for the interception that gave Cousins the hat trick, it is not even worth discussing in depth. Cousins was set to make an on-time throw to a dig route over the middle when one of his offensive linemen got shoved into his lap, giving the defensive lineman a chance to hit Cousins’ arm as it came around. The ball floated around in the air before a Falcons defender got under it for the pick. Maybe Cousins should have the sense to realize he does not have time to get that throw off, but to me, that play was much less his fault and more just a stroke of bad luck. Granted, the Vikings seem to be dealing with an unusual amount of bad luck this year, but still.

Saving the season is out of the question. Per Football Outsiders, the Vikings currently hold a 6.3% chance to make the playoffs. And that is with the new seven-team format, so it surely would be lower in previous seasons. Before the Falcons loss, the Vikings had about a 17% chance of making the playoffs, which is obviously not good, but still within reason to believe the team could turn things around. This loss, off the back of a horrid first half from Cousins, stripped the season of any and hope of making the playoffs.

Therefore it is tough to imagine what to expect or want from Cousins moving forward. Somehow, he has become Jameis Winston in 2020. Cousins holds the highest yards per completion in the league at 13.1 YPC, yet has a league-high 10 interceptions through six weeks. Many of those interceptions have been against vanilla defenses such as Indianapolis and now Atlanta, too, so it does not feel as though this stretch of volatility will somehow come to an end if the Vikings face other bad and/or vanilla defenses.

They may just be stuck with a bizarro version of Cousins at the worst possible time in this franchise’s current arc for him to be that player.

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Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

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