Vikings

Kirk Cousins Was Good, Bad and Baffling On Sunday

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

Beating the Jacksonville Jaguars should not require a field goal in overtime off the back of a Mike Glennon interception. The Jaguars are bad for a number of reasons, but their defense, in particular, has been an embarrassment this season. This game should have been a prime opportunity to run roughshod over their opponents, much like the Lions game from last month. That’s not how things went down.

Both sides of the ball deserve some blame for how close this game turned out. It was a painfully mediocre team-wide effort. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is not at all exempt from any of that criticism. While Cousins was not a disaster, his performance came with plenty of bumps in the road.

The obvious misstep was his pick-six to linebacker Joe Schobert. There is some discussion to be had about whether or not Cousins assumed Dalvin Cook would “sit” rather than carry out his route, but given the structure of the play, there is not much reason to believe that. Cousins should not have even thrown the ball anyway.

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The location of Cousins’ throw makes it seem as though he thought Cook would “sit” down here. However, with the center looking for space in front of him, one has to think Cousins needs to put this outside because this is a screen. Perhaps if Cousins had a clean pocket, he would have been able to do that, but the pressure forces him to slide away from the throw to Cook. Cousins would have been better off eating the sack or looking to throw the ball away rather than forcing a screen pass which he has clearly moved away from, but that’s not what he does. He tries to make the hero play, doesn’t get near enough juice on the pass, and the linebacker is able to fly down for a pretty easy pick.

A few times per game, Cousins has plays like that where he completely loses his mind. They are baffling in that Cousins is generally good at getting through his reads and playing within the structure of a play. It’s not that he is a dumb quarterback. He just has these lapses where it’s like he forgets to be a critically-thinking football player — and it really cost him this time around.

Another somewhat recurring issue showed up for Cousins in this one. Though not always an issue, Cousins can struggle to generate enough heat to throw routes breaking to the sideline. The throwing angles can be tough on quarterbacks, especially to the far sideline, and quarterbacks have to be able to generate enough heat to make sure the ball stays on the receiver’s far shoulder. Without a lot of easy arm strength to work with, the result is often that the ball will hang too far behind the target. That’s exactly what happened to Cousins in a couple of instances.

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Here is one on 3rd and 3. Considering this is about an eight-yard route with only three yards to gain, there is a ton of space to work with to keep this ball low and away if need be. Cousins delivers a throw that is the exact opposite of that. The throw hangs high and inside, forcing what would have been a tough catch regardless of coverage. Despite his target’s separation, Cousins’ throw fell incomplete because of how easy he made it for the defensive back to work to the ball.

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Later in the quarter, Cousins threw a similar ball further down the field. Jefferson is running a deep comeback (usually 16-18 yards) on the far sideline from Cousins. This is an undeniably tough throw for any NFL quarterback. That said, it’s a throw that the best passers can still hit with regularity. Cousins failed to even really come close on this attempt, again leaving the ball too far inside. This ball needs to be left towards the sideline, even forcing a toe-top catch if need be, yet Cousins puts this ball on the receiver’s inside shin about three yards away from the sideline. The ball rapidly loses its juice after it leaves Cousins’ hand, taking a pretty mean nosedive there at the end. Jefferson had no real chance at this.

All that being said, good Cousins showed up as much as he needed to in order to win this one. Barely. Through a pretty middling performance overall, Cousins connected on a few key throws that helped put points on the board. Cousins’ first score of the day, in particular, was a beauty.

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Low red zone coverage is tricky to decipher because of how much the field condenses. Traditional safety shells don’t really apply when there is no depth with them to play with. In any event, it looks like Jacksonville’s middle of the field safety immediately turns his eyes and hips to Justin Jefferson (left) at the snap. He is de-facto doubling Jefferson by ‘robbing’ any inside routes, namely the slant route that Jefferson has been oh so deadly with, especially near the goal line. Cousins knows that no safety scanning for “deeper” routes means that Adam Thielen just has to win 1-on-1 on his “deep” crossing route. After hitching up and realizing the safety is hanging low, Cousins lofts a beautiful ball to the back of the end zone, allowing Thielen to snag it right in stride.

It’s a bit irritating that it took Cousins and the offense so long to get points on the board against Football Outsiders’ worst defense per DVOA, but hey, at least it looked pretty when it finally happened.

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Cousins’ other great throw on the day was a go ball to Jefferson, which has been a constant for the offense throughout the season. Jefferson plays with fantastic release off the line of scrimmage that makes it easy for him to “win” whichever side of the cornerback he needs to play through. This is a fairly simple read for Cousins, too. With two verticals from the outside receiver, Cousins, if the defense shows one-high safety, can just pick the better matchup and let it fly. As he drops back, Cousins sees the weak safety fly to the deep middle, while the strong safety rolls down. Cousins takes that as a signal to let it rip to Jefferson and hits him just over the shoulder. Perhaps this could have been left a foot or two out further in front so Jefferson could keep it moving, but it’s hard to complain about a huge completion like this, especially given how the offense was looking to that point.

A performance like this against, say, a top-10 defense would honestly be passable. As mentioned, Cousins did hit on a number of good throws and mostly kept his mental mistakes to the one interception, costly as that one may have been. Against the Jaguars, though, Cousins needed to show some more poise and do a better job of connecting on open throws toward the boundary. He had chances to ensure this game would not be as close as it was, and he failed to deliver.

Over the next three weeks, Cousins absolutely needs to be better. Not only are the next few weeks huge for playoff implications, but the next three defenses on the schedule are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. All three defenses are among the best in the league right now and will certainly make things tougher on Cousins than Jacksonville did. Cousins has had some wonderful games this season, even if the Jaguars game was not one of them. Hopefully, Cousins can draw from those outings and show a better version of himself through the rest of this month.

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