There are 17 quarterbacks in the NFL that have dropped back at least 480 times this year, and Kirk Cousins has been pressured at a higher rate than any of them.
Behind an offensive line that the Vikings have tried bolstering through the draft each of the last four years with a pick in the first three rounds, Cousins has been pressured on 39.5% of dropbacks. That’s an alarming number when you consider that Aaron Rodgers of the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers is only facing pressure 23.4% of the time.
There are variables in Cousins’ favor that should be eliminating duress — not adding it — which makes his dearth of protection all the more frustrating for fans to watch for the umpteenth year in a row. The Vikings have one of the league’s best running games featuring Dalvin Cook, two of the league’s best receivers in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, and a quarterback that’s become more comfortable fleeing the pocket with the football. Furthermore, their offensive line has been among the healthiest in football, at least in four of the five spots: Riley Reiff, Dakota Dozier, Garrett Bradbury and Brian O’Neill have missed a combined 14 snaps all season. Yet things are trending the wrong way. What gives?
It seems like a broken record, but the Vikings have a conundrum at guard. And the focus is more squarely on that position than ever before as O’Neill and Reiff maintain steady play at tackle and Bradbury shows improvement at center. Dozier, who’s started every game, leads all guards in the NFL with 40 pressures allowed. There’s been a four-man revolving door at right guard between Pat Elflein, Dru Samia, Ezra Cleveland and Brett Jones, the composite of which has allowed 42 pressures, which exceeds Dozier’s league-worst total.
Vikings guards have allowed almost 43% of the pressure on Cousins, who has already taken six more sacks than a year ago with two games left. Perhaps more telling, his sack rate is up from 5.9% to 7.2%, a stat that Cousins tracks and takes personal accountability for. To Cousins’ credit, there’s never been a finger pointed at his offensive line.
“I think good quarterbacks in this league avoid sacks,” Cousins said, “so you try to take pride in that as a player. It’s kind of a hidden statistic at the end of the year – how many sacks did you take relative to your pass attempts? I think we all try to take pride in that and know that we’re someone who isn’t an extra weight to the offensive line and the offensive line coach but is taking pride in avoiding sacks. While it tends to be a stat more associated with offensive line play, I really do feel it’s a big quarterback stat as well.”
Pro Football Focus has pinned 25 pressures on Cousins himself this year for holding the ball too long. But Cousins has also shown increased gumption to scramble away from that pressure, which he’ll continue to need if his protection can’t hold up. It seems almost certain the Vikings will do something to upgrade at least one of the guard spots in 2021, although that’s what pundits believed last offseason, too.
A quick rewind: Minnesota cut Josh Kline after one year on his three-year deal for reasons unbeknownst to the general public, though the fact that Kline was never signed by any team might indicate something was amiss. Kline was the better of the Vikings’ two guards — Elflein being the other — so it stood to reason that the Vikings would be searching doubly hard for help.
Instead, they backfilled the opening with an in-house option in Dozier and flipped Elflein to right guard, his third position in three years. It was an easy patch job, but would it actually plug the leaks? Dozier had never held down a full-time starting job in his seven-year career, and Elflein had struggled since his offseason surgeries in 2018. The draft seemingly did little to provide immediate support. Second-round pick Ezra Cleveland was a four-year tackle at Boise State, and seventh-round guard Kyle Hinton played Division-II football. (Note: There were 12 guards selected by other teams between Rounds 4-6.)
The only thing you could say positively about the Vikings’ arrangement: It was cheap. Dozier cost $1 million. Elflein cost just over $2 million after getting a raise from the NFL’s proven performance escalator. Maybe the Vikings had gotten spooked about paying guards after Kline and Alex Boone lasted just one season on bigger deals, Brandon Fusco greatly regressed after signing an extension, and high-priced Mike Remmers was released after switching from tackle to guard. All that said, affordable help was available. Wes Schweitzer and Greg Van Roten signed for three years, $3.5 million and $4.5 million per year, respectively. Mike Iupati and John Miller signed cheap one-year deals. All four are top 40 among guards with half the snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Dozier is dead last on that same list.
There isn’t a single man to blame for the issues at right guard. Elflein was hurt in Week 1 and eventually released following his rehab. Samia filled in woefully from Weeks 2-5 until suffering an injury of his own. Then Cleveland showed up after a position switch to try and save the day. Like many of his colleagues in the Vikings’ o-line room, his run-blocking was far ahead of his pass-blocking. Cleveland held his own getting to the second level on big runs by Cook, but his protection left plenty to be desired. He’s been routinely perplexed by stunts, has allowed 21 pressures, and grades 75th out of 91 guards. It’s been a lot of on-the-job learning.
“A big thing I kind of base myself on is not making the same mistake twice, so getting all of these pressures that I might not have seen before, it’s nice to see, because if I do it wrong, I’m not going to do it wrong again,” Cleveland said in early December. “Getting all of these pressures in that last game and watching tape and figuring out what was going on and the tendencies and what the defense does that you can key on and identify coming in the future definitely helps. I’m happy that I can put that in my tool belt.”
Cleveland is part of a trim interior line whose athleticism been a point of pride for general manager Rick Spielman. Their lighter size is by design, but as the Vikings have found out, there are consequences, and Cousins often suffers them.
When asked about the group’s struggles, coaches and players have been hesitant to criticize. Mike Zimmer was reluctant to discuss the interior pressures allowed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14, Cousins often attempts to fall on the sword himself, and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak declined to specify the criteria by which he evaluates his offensive linemen.
“Can I think about that one for a couple weeks? You look at everything,” Kubiak said. “This is a stats-driven business. There’s not any stat we can’t go look at or see nowadays. Really, that’s hard to answer. I’d have to sit down and think about that. We’re evaluating everything we do every day, every week, and when the season’s over you go back and evaluate it again, but I think our guys have played well, they’ve played hard. Have they been perfect? No. None of us have been. So you’re always striving for perfection, but I love the way our guys have hung in there this year.”
The group has been applauded often for its toughness. That’s an intangible that’s hard to question. What isn’t are the numbers. The Vikings’ interior protection has regressed, but considering their offseason approach, it shouldn’t be that surprising.