The Minnesota Vikings are exasperating. Even when Kirk Cousins plays excellent football for most of four quarters, a previously discarded Andy Dalton somehow leads a go-ahead touchdown drive late in the game to throw a wrench in things and wash away any positive feelings this game might have provided. Yes, yes, being a Vikings fan has always been some variation of Sunday’s game, but losing to that Dallas Cowboys team, in that way, with Cousins playing as well as he did, is truly something else.
Cousins really did play well, too. Winding up with another loss should not negate that. Up until the last couple drives, which we will get to, He looked as sharp as ever. Play-action, drop back from gun, drop back from under-center, rollouts — everything was working. Cousins took full advantage of every crumb of space the Cowboys defense afforded him, and he knew exactly how he needed to attack each concept and situation. He was in the ever-elusive “flow state.” Dallas’ defense, albeit quite bad to begin with, had zero answers.
In the clip below, the Vikings get into what I call a “Spin” concept to the weak side of this empty formation. The wing tight end runs a short hitch or pivot route (can vary), while the outside receiver works vertically before breaking at about 10 yards to the inside. This concept is designed to high-low the hook defender, forcing them to either sit high with the vertical stem or come down low for the hitch/pivot player.[videopress GojtDSrQ]
Dallas comes out in a two-high shell here. Cousins starts his progression to the right-hand side, but seeing the nickel drop into a zone assignment with a two-high shell, he likely makes the assumption that the strong-side cornerback can “fall off” his man and pass off the vertical of No. 1 to the safety. That is not what happens, but Cousins at least had a plan and knew to move on when he saw an indicator of something he didn’t like.
He worked to the back side just in time for the peak of the conflict on the weak hook player. As Cousins gets his head around, he sees the weak hook sitting at about 10 yards trying to take away the square-in, which prompts him to throw the hitch/pivot right away. Seeing as how quickly Cousins saw things and got the ball out, the pass-catcher was able to bring it in and trudge through for the first down.
Maybe Vikings fans have grown tired of seeing Cousins throw short of the sticks on third down — I know I have — but in this instance, Cousins handled the passing concept well. If a quarterback is going to throw short of the sticks, they must be doing so with the intention that the short route has enough space for yards-after-catch, and he did just that. That is not sexy quarterbacking, but sharp quarterbacks like Cousins can make that work with proper timing and accuracy.
In the following quarter, Cousins flashed a different kind of savvy. Not the kind of savvy that a quarterback shows throughout the play in going through their reads or managing the pocket, but the kind that shows awareness of the situation and bigger picture.
Early in the second quarter, linebacker Eric Kendricks snagged a ridiculous interception off Dalton in the red zone. It was a fantastic play in a vacuum, but especially deflating to the Cowboys offense seeing as they were in position to score. Cousins, with a little help from offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, came out firing to attack that deflation right away, as any decent quarterback and offense should. Shot plays after an opposing turnover are always a good idea.[videopress O4y5FO0C]
Conceptually, this is nothing out of the ordinary. It is a “Stick” concept to the strong side with a back flaring to the strength of the formation. On the back side, star rookie receiver Justin Jefferson is left 1-on-1 with a cornerback in a single-high defensive shell, meaning the corner has no help deep unless it’s a middle-of-field route (i.e. a post). This route is an “alert” for the quarterback, meaning it is not part of the standard progression post-snap and will only be thrown under the right pre-snap conditions.
Well, getting Jefferson a 1-on-1 in a favorable cornerback matchup with no help over the top meets the conditions. Cousins lofts an absolute teardrop over Jefferson’s far shoulder, and the Vikings pick up a huge gain right after that Cowboys turnover a play earlier. Credit to Kubiak for calling a play with that kind of an alert and credit to Cousins for throwing it.
For a lot of the game from this point on, Dallas remained in one-high shells. A big reason for this is because they wanted to sell out to stop the Vikings’ run game. While Dalvin Cook and friends were not exactly shut down (Cook still averaged a nice 4.3 yards per carry), it is fair to say the run game was not as effective in a vacuum as it has been in past games.
Getting into these one-high shells and eight-man boxes sort of limited what the Cowboys could do from a coverage standpoint, though. As Steve Sarkisian (who was with the Washington Huskies at the time) illustrates in the clip above, an effective rushing offense countered by eight-man boxes forces defenses to play a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3. That principle makes sense seeing as the defense is starting from a one-high shells, and it’s often tougher to rotate from one-high to two-high than it is from two-high to one-high coverages.
As such, the Vikings relied on their assortment of under-center play-action shot plays to abuse Dallas’ single-high safety. A lot of these hard play-action concepts are troublesome for the single-high safety in any defense, but the Cowboys’ is particularly bad, so these plays were quite effective.[videopress FQCy8qdV] [videopress ECYa8X0i]
In the first clip, the Vikings run two intermediate crossers at slightly different depths. The deep safety tries to pin down on the first, which can be how defenses choose to handle crossers from single-high, and leaves the deeper crossing route wide open. In the second clip, Jefferson threatens vertically in what, at first, looks like is going to be a “Dagger” concept. The deep safety bails deeper to stay over the top, only for Jefferson to snap his route off towards the pylon and make himself available for another wonderful throw from Cousins.
Kubiak called a wonderful game to enable Cousins. Cousins returned the favor with some excellent quarterbacking all over the field. And yet, once the defense surrendered a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, none of that mattered. The Vikings were behind the eight ball and needed Cousins to bail them out while not really being able to play within the construct of the offense given the time constraints.
To the surprise of nobody, a game-winning drive from Cousins never materialized. A couple of drops, most notably one from Jefferson that hit him dead in the hands on a short inside route, made things difficult for Cousins. But still, when the chips were down and Cousins needed to pull out a trump card to win the game, he again proved that he does not really have one. And that does not necessarily mean the game was his fault or that he is a bad quarterback, especially considering how well he played for three and a half quarters. It’s just another notch in the “Cousins doesn’t make your team markedly better” column.
What a uniquely Vikings tragedy that is. Cousins was everything the front office paid him to be on Sunday. He was near-flawless all over the field for much of the game. The game plan was perfect for him and he executed as well as any quarterback could. The play-action game, in particular, was open all day and Cousins took full advantage.
By the end of the game, none of it mattered. So goes the conundrum with Cousins, especially in 2020.