Every week this season is a new adventure through a forest of pain and misfortune. Mind-numbing interceptions, getting almost entirely choked out of time of possession, a defense (somehow) crumbling under the guidance of Mike Zimmer, botched shotgun snaps during a two-minute drive to potentially take the game — it’s always something with this Minnesota Vikings team.
Sunday’s game at least gave Vikings fans something to get excited over. A silver lining. A sliver of hope. A crumb of optimism.
That something was Kirk Cousins’ performance. After one week of barely getting to throw the ball and another week of horrific accuracy, Cousins came out firing against the Tennessee Titans in a way that suggests he can help this team win football games again.
Cousins’ newfound connection with Justin Jefferson is the obvious bright spot from Sunday’s loss. Through the first two weeks, Jefferson had earned just six targets, five catches, and 70 yards. Some of that is on Cousins, some of it is on play calling, and some of it is on Jefferson. It all clicked against the Titans, though, and it looked like Jefferson both found a comfortable role and earned the confidence of his quarterback.
At Louisiana State University, some of Jefferson’s best routes were in-breakers around 10 yards. Basics (square-in) and glances (short post) had to be the most common routes in all of LSU’s offense. Those routes, both from Jefferson and others, were frequently ran from tight splits. While LSU’s offense was almost exclusively shotgun formations and Minnesota’s is primarily under center, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak found a way to incorporate Jefferson’s comforts into the offense.
A simple passing concept, no doubt, but this is exactly where Jefferson thrives: Attacking the middle of the field from a tight split. Jefferson does a wonderful job here of not giving anything away about his route break too early. No leaning, no slowing down, no bending his route stem — Jefferson attacked the defensive back head-on right until he planted that right foot at the top of the painted 20. Cousins pulls the trigger right as Jefferson is coming out of the break and it’s an easy fresh set of downs.
Perhaps more important for the growth of the Vikings offense, Jefferson also found comfort with some downfield routes. Jefferson is never going to be the straight go-route or post route player that Stefon Diggs was. It would be unfair to expect him to be, both because Diggs was elite at it and because Jefferson simply wins in other ways.
This play feels like peak LSU Jefferson. While Jefferson is running a go straight down the sideline, go balls out of empty are more often conducive to being played as back-shoulder balls. Quarterbacks are rarely going to get the time to gear up for a 40-plus yard bomb in stride while working with the light protection of an empty formation — the ball needs to be out right away. Therefore, it’s a lot easier to loft these passes towards the receiver’s back shoulder and let them go get it. Jefferson, while not necessarily the biggest or strongest receiver, is very flexible and does a wonderful job tracking the ball in the air, which are traits he showed on this exact route a number of times in college.
Even Jefferson’s deep touchdown on Sunday felt it was ripped from an LSU highlight reel. Rather than being asked to win directly down the field, Jefferson was given a playground over the middle to shake his defender, then take off from there.
Again, Jefferson is tight to the formation, just like he was for much of his time at LSU. Being able to operate over the middle of the field rather than the sideline gives Jefferson more freedom to use space to his advantage, rather than the raw stop/start speed more often required to win outside the numbers. Jefferson has speed, don’t get me wrong. He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. But his speed is better suited for plays like this where he can get to his top speed by working around someone in space, not 1-on-1 on the sideline or straight down the hashes. It helps that the player he is working against on this play is 36-year-old Johnathan Joseph.
Cousins also did all he needed to on this play. Of course the throw itself was fantastic, but he also played with the quick decision making and instant trigger required to make this work. As soon as Cousins hit the top of his drop, he looked for the deep safety over the vertical route from Adam Thielen, who he presumably saw well past the midpoint of the hashes. Cousins instantly reset and fired to Jefferson without really seeing if Jefferson was open, trusting that he would be if the ball was put in the right spot.
That same confidence, both in himself and in the fabrics of the offense, showed up all throughout the game from Cousins. After a rough, uncertain couple of weeks to start the year, Cousins was ripping everything on-time and with excellent accuracy on Sunday. He knew what he wanted and knew exactly where he needed to put the ball to make things happen.
Similar to the Jefferson touchdown, Cousins gets to the top of his drop, ID’s the safety, and instantly turns to rip a pass away from the safety. Doing so from a shotgun formation where you can see the defense throughout one’s drop back can be difficult, let alone when a quarterback has to turn their back on an under-center play-action concept. There is almost zero room for error between the top of the drop and when the ball needs to be out. Cousins got the ball out within that small window — under some pressure, no less — and delivered a very good ball. This throw, given the timing and accuracy, should be six points more often than not, Tennessee’s defensive back just made an unreal play to reach over the receiver’s back and claw the ball out.
I know, piggybacking off that setup with an incompletion feels misleading, but Cousins played that about as well as he could have. Though incomplete, his process, trigger, and accuracy were all conducive to future success on such plays, even if the defensive back made a better play in that particular instance.
This touchdown throw to tight end Kyle Rudolph shows the same kind of confidence. Right as Cousins hits the top of his drop, a Titans defender is about a step and a half from taking his head off. Cousins doesn’t panic, though. He knows Rudolph is running a corner-post. The ball is already leaving Cousins’ hand before Rudolph fully begins his cut back to the post after faking the corner. And yet, Cousins had the foresight and confidence in the structure to know exactly where Rudolph would end up if he threw the ball when he did. Rudolph had to make a bit of an effort to bring it down, but Cousins getting this ball out at all, let alone in a catchable spot, is an improvement on what we have seen for much of the past couple weeks.
If there is any avenue to criticize Cousins this game, it is the first interception. The second interception at the end of the game was nothing more than circumstance and will hurt his end-of-year stat line more than it had any effect on the game. That first interception, however, was an instance of Cousins’ hair trigger briefly biting him in the butt.
Cousins’ pre-snap process and knowing where to go with the ball was not bad. Assuming he wanted to keep this ball inside enough to steer clear of Jadeveon Clowney dropping back a bit, this should be a completion to Jefferson on the curl route. It’s open. Cousins knew a blitz could be coming, too, and really tried his best to get the ball out on time. However, running back Dalvin Cook tried to chop the blitzer’s legs while the blitzer was already about to crash into Cousins anyway, all of which discombobulated Cousins’ throwing motion. This is a play where Cousins probably needs to just eat it or bail once he realizes the rusher is getting home freely. A six-yard curl route on 1st-and-10 just doesn’t hold a high enough reward to justify trying to make this play work by any means necessary.
That said, I can kind of live with these interceptions over any of the picks he threw in the Colts game. Those interceptions were either careless heaves or poor accuracy, whereas on this pick versus the Titans, there is at least some rationale for what he was doing — the play just went awry.
It’s easy to be frustrated with Cousins from a macro perspective. He has not lived up to his contract this season and the team is off to an 0-3 start, which is never a position a team with a so-called franchise quarterback should be in. At least this week, though, Cousins should not be the piñata. He played as well as he should be expected to play, but the defense capitulated once again. If the defense is going to continue letting up 30-plus points, then even Cousins’ good games, like this one, will be for naught.