Around this time last week, I hopped on a podcast with Purple Insider’s Matthew Coller to discuss Kirk Cousins. The framing of the podcast episode was primarily about which quarterbacks you would want for a game-winning drive. Down six points, 1:47 on the clock, one timeout, that type of deal.
To the surprise of (probably) nobody, Cousins fell pretty low on that list. That does not make him a bad or undesirable quarterback, either. If the question were just about which quarterback you would want for a game or season, Cousins would rank much higher. However, for the purposes of high-pressure, late-game dramatics, it was hard to rationalize putting Cousins above other quarterbacks with “trump card” traits to rely on in those situations.
Well, Cousins made me look pretty stupid last Sunday.
After a slog of a game that asked him to make up for a running game that was being stood up by a brick wall, Cousins delivered on the Vikings final drive of the game. He marched the offense 75 yards down the field in seven plays, eating up just over a minute of the 1:51 left on the clock when the Vikings took over possession. With no timeouts to spare, Cousins had to find the right blend of aggression for maximum yardage while still hitting a play or two on the sideline for short gains that could stop the clock.
He did just that.
On the first play of the drive, Minnesota came out in an empty formation with a trey set (trips with a tight end) to the left. All of Carolina’s front seven defenders are on the line of scrimmage trying to disguise their blitz look to Cousins. To the left hand side, one safety is “capped” over the slot defender. More often than not, that’s a good tell that the slot defender is blitzing, which is further tipped off by the slot defender squeezing the formation before the snap.[videopress 1NI0TVcX]
At the snap, Cousins peeks left to see the linebacker and nose tackle pop off the line of scrimmage. He scans further to his right before finishing his drop back and sees the weak linebacker also in coverage, which Cousins may have already known since that player was stepping off the line before the snap anyway. Cousins’ quick mental math should tell him Carolina only has four rushers, so he has time in the pocket (well, he should). After settling and hitching up just a smidgen, he takes advantage of the weak pass-rush and finds his man on the sideline.
This was a good example of Cousins understanding the kind of pocket he was supposed to get and making full use of it, while also finding a throw that would stop the clock.[videopress 6UEs89RF]
Second play. Again the Vikings are in empty, but Cousins’ process is a bit easier this time around. To the right-hand side, Minnesota is running a simple slant-flat combination. With Carolina’s outside cornerback jammed up in press coverage and no other defender lined up near the flat area, Cousins knows he can take the flat for a free handful of yards and stop the clock. Not flashy, but you still need these plays on a game-winning drive more often than not.[videopress uqWLOIyP]
Oh look, another empty formation! This time, the Panthers aim to actually cover the flats. Carolina came out with a three-man front and three deep safety with both outside cornerbacks playing in zone turns from depth. As the play gets rolling, the Panthers get into “Cloud” coverage on both sides, where a safety takes a deep-third over a cornerback in the flat. This also works out like Tampa 2, but with the middle-third player already at depth rather than “running the pole” from a linebacker spot. Call it whatever you want to call it — in any event, Cousins realizes the conservative coverage and accepts that he will have to burn some clock here to ensure the first down. Cousins takes the throw to Rudolph over the middle and immediately begins calling for a no-huddle snap.
By the time Minnesota gets set following that completion, there is still about 1:30 left on the clock. A field goal won’t do it here, so they cannot just play for the next 15 yards or so, but Cousins understands he has time for a couple of completions that do not stop the clock, if need be. With his next two passes, he takes advantage of that in order to get into reasonable scoring range.[videopress TErfhrVq]
Same coverage from the Panthers again. In this clip, the second-level defenders get a bit more depth because they are supposed to be playing the sticks, but it’s the same coverage call. Cousins, knowing he is getting a three-man rush again, takes his sweet time checking out the spacing between Minnesota’s three stop routes to the left side. As Cousins eyes the No. 3 (inside receiver / tight end), Carolina defensive back Corn Elder (29) tries to peel off his zone to help with the pass breakup. Cousins does not throw to the No. 3, though, and instead rips it to the No. 2 (middle receiver) now that the defensive back has vacated. Good throw to take advantage of a bad, greedy cornerback.
To this point in the drive, almost every concept the Vikings ran was simple. Slant flat, all curls, deep outs to the sideline. A lot of the standard stuff you will see on these kinds of drives to get easy yards with chances to kill the clock. On the next play, however, the Vikings called a more deliberate chunk play, knowing they were about to be in real striking distance.[videopress rBjSzcds]
This concept is deliberately designed to hit Kyle Rudolph on the crossing route here. The outside receiver to the left clears vertical to open up space outside the numbers, while the slot receiver runs a hitch to pull second-level defenders down. Rudolph’s route should hit just inside the numbers once he “climbs” over the second-level defenders, which is exactly how things play out. In all honesty, Rudolph looks absolutely gassed here (and who could blame him with this hurry-up attack), but the concept worked to perfection to get him wide open, in part because of a cheeky pump fake to the hitch from Cousins.
On the next play, Cousins nearly tossed the game away through no real fault of his own.[videopress adZ0yDpl]
In trying to force a pass in to Justin Jefferson over the middle, a Carolina defensive lineman sniffed it out and got a hand up, causing the ball to flutter around before ultimately hitting the ground. It’s tough to really pin this on Cousins, especially with as well as he had played on the drive up to this point. Thankfully the ball just hit the turf and allowed Cousins another chance at the end zone.[videopress DndCAOdx]
And finally, Cousins sealed the deal with this beauty to Chad Beebe. With no deep middle player in this coverage, Beebe knows he can work a real tight angle on this post route and give Cousins a window over the top. Cousins finds that window with ease and leaves this ball up high for Beebe. Ideally, Cousins puts this a bit more towards the back of the end zone, but hey, there is no reason to nitpick a game-winning touchdown throw like that.
Even without a defining physical trait to lean on, Cousins got it done on this game-winning drive. His awareness of Carolina’s pass-rush numbers, timing and accuracy throughout the drive were all fantastic. That his only incompletion was a batted ball at the line of scrimmage is quite the testament to how dangerously efficient Cousins was, even if there was not really any single throw that was jaw-dropping. Cousins regularly took what the Panthers gave him, and sometimes that is all a quarterback needs to do in these spots.