Play-Action Was the Key to Kirk Cousins' Stellar Week 4 Performance

Photo credit: Troy Taormina (USA TODAY Sports)

Week 3’s loss against the Titans provided a glimmer of hope from Kirk Cousins. Despite the two interceptions on the stat sheet, Cousins played a mostly impressive game. In this week’s game in Houston, the Vikings quarterback took that Week 3 momentum and delivered a full-blown masterpiece in Minnesota’s first win of the year.

Whenever this offense has a good game, play-action was the key. Houston’s linebacking corps is especially poor versus the pass, so that certainly helped open up the middle for the Vikings, but it was more than that. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak did well to blend concepts together to keep the Texans defense guessing, and Cousins delivered a strike almost every single time. For the first time this year, it felt like the offense was fully in concert.

Kubiak even opened the game with a slight switch-up from their usual approach. Almost all of the Vikings’ play-action concepts feature a deep crosser from a tight split, so Kubiak called the first play-action shot as a complement to that.

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A good chunk of Minnesota’s play-action plays will come with one receiver on each side, but in this clip, both receivers are to the offense’s left. Adam Thielen is in the slot, Justin Jefferson is on the outside. This formation is ripe for something like a Dino concept (double-posts) or a crosser from the slot and a deep vertical by the outside — something that pulls the top off the defense and opens up space for the slot between the numbers.

Thielen instead starts to bend inside right before cutting back to the outside about 18 yards deep. Between Thielen’s crisp route and Cousins helping sell the route over the middle with his eyes and shoulders, the Vikings were able to get right to midfield in a hurry. That particular drive tapered off shortly thereafter, but that first play-action completion was a sign of what was to come.

Kubiak then set up the same thing for Jefferson over the next few drives. On Minnesota’s second drive, the Vikings came out in a formation with one receiver to either side in a tight split, in which Jefferson ran a deep crosser. Cousins connected with him for a huge gain. A couple drives later, in the second quarter, the Vikings motioned to basically the same formation, but instead had Jefferson run the deep out like Thielen did in the first clip.

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This continued to work for the Vikings for a few reasons. For one, Kubiak’s timing and set-ups for these calls was spectacular. Additionally, many cornerbacks lament the deep crosser being one of the toughest routes to defend because it becomes a foot race in which some of the angles can become awkward to keep up with. As such, it is easy to understand why cornerbacks may “cheat” towards getting a jump on those routes. Couple that with Thielen and Jefferson being crafty route-runners as is, and you can get results like this.

Another one of Minnesota’s play-action strikes came off perfectly catching the Texans in an untimely safety rotation. Safety rotations, while they can be troublesome for an offense, can be somewhat of a risk for the defense in the event you happen to rotate away from the offense’s play call. That is exactly what happened on one of Cousins’ connections to Thielen in the third quarter.

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The Texans spin down their centerfield safety (Justin Reid, No. 20) to the strong side while the other safety (Eric Murray, 23) flies up to the deep middle. As far as I can tell, the Texans get into some sort of Cover 3, which usually has a few different answers to the deep crosser and deep post combination the Vikings run here. Some teams will drop the cornerback off the deep post player to have them hang down to pick up the crosser, passing off the post to the deep safety. Some teams will ask the deep safety to “nail down” on the deep crosser and have the cornerback stick with the post. Well, with one safety rotating away from Thielen’s route area and the other sprinting to get to the deep middle, Houston’s only answer in this instance would be to have the cornerback covering the post fall off. As you can see, that did not happen, and the Vikings moved the sticks once again.

From a play-calling and execution perspective, there really was no asking for more. The Vikings hit on play-action pass after play-action pass and worked themselves into a game state where they could lean on the run game. Star running back Dalvin Cook rewarded them for it, too, and churned out another 100-plus yard game with a pair of scores.

The cherry-on-top was Cousins’ laser to tight end Kyle Rudolph while throwing off his back foot against pressure. We know Cousins can throw when rolling out, and we have seen him remain cool under pressure this season, but a 30-plus yard throw under duress into a tight window is still stunning to see from any quarterback who isn’t Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson (because, well, they do it all the time).

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Cousins doesn’t even attempt these throws very often, let alone hit them. After realizing he would not be able to get this ball out the way he wanted, Cousins did a fantastic job to get his left foot off the ground and start to open his hips up with that little hop back. Doing so allowed Cousins to keep his hips free and rotate off just his back foot/hip, where all his power has to come from for a throw like this. With the Vikings only up one point and close to striking distance for a touchdown, it was encouraging to see Cousins be willing enough to make that throw.

After a pair of Cook carries, Cousins delivered another strike over the middle to Thielen, leaving the ball low and away from the defender. It was the exact kind of savvy ball placement that should be expected of a veteran. That Cousins could be a playmaker as well as his typical savvy self on back-to-back pass attempts was just what the Vikings needed to put this one away.

In just about every way, this was Cousins’ best game of the season. Though he only threw the one touchdown, this was his first game without an interception. Cousins also earned his highest single-game passer rating of the season so far. Even just judging by the eye test, it felt like Cousins was in control and in sync with the offense in a way that had not quite been there in previous weeks. Next week’s game is a Sunday nighter against a putrid Seahawks pass defense, so Cousins has another opportunity to keep up the momentum.

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