Why Didn't Kirk Cousins Throw Deep More Against Seattle?

Photo credit: Joe Nicholson (USA TODAY Sports)

It feels as though every Kirk Cousins performance this season has been some form of extreme, whether that was necessarily his fault or not. Think about the Indianapolis Colts game compared to last week’s Houston Texans game, for example. He’s all over the place.

This week was much more “meh.”

Cousins was not outright bad. By and large, he did his job protecting the ball and hitting on the simple plays to keep the offense moving. The glaring exception is the interception to K.J. Wright. Though it was a greedy ball to some degree, nobody expects a 250-pound linebacker to make a one-handed interception over their back. Heck, wide receivers are rarely expected to make a play like that.

He and the offense showed some signs of life with respect to setting up the Seattle defense, too. Throughout the first three quarters, Cousins picked on the Seattle defense with a flurry of targets to Adam Thielen on out-breaking routes. A well-run and thrown out route is one of the toughest routes to defend for any coverage and the Vikings did well to capitalize on that.

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The thing to keep in mind as this sets up for the next clip is where Thielen is aligned. To some degree or another, he is in a reduced split on both of these snaps. While that does seem like an obvious set up for room on the outside, reduced splits can also mean quicker access to the opposite side of the field on crossers. It’s tough for the cornerback to cheat.

And in both clips, Thielen creates a wide-open window for Cousins to hit. Cousins delivers an accurate, on-time ball both times and forces Seattle to respect that route the next time they sniff it might be coming up again. The Vikings then used that against them on one of their most important drives of the game.

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Thielen starts out wide, but motions to a condensed split in a stack formation. After the snap, he climbs to about eight yards before slowing down and chopping his feet. The eight-yard benchmark is right around where Thielen had been previously breaking off his out routes, so Seattle’s cornerback had to have suffered a bit of a flashback when Thielen started chopping his feet there. To cornerback Shaquill Griffin’s dismay, the outside break was a ruse, allowing Thielen to cut back inside underneath the cornerback.

The 14-yard gain on third down set up the Vikings for an easy score afterwards. Cousins found Thielen on a short rollout on the next play, putting the game back within Minnesota’s reach, 21-19.

Unfortunately, Cousins and the offense were middling for much of the rest of the game. Above all, they failed to punish Seattle in the one area every other team has been ravaging them this season. The Seahawks defense entered the day 28th in deep pass DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Cousins, however, attempted just six of his 39 attempts beyond 15 yards. He only completed two of them, both of which were deep crossers to tight end Irv Smith.

To be fair, right guard Dru Samia was an unmitigated disaster all game. He was the key culprit for the Vikings not having the protection they typically do. Granted, their baseline protection is not fantastic, but Samia was truly a nightmare on Sunday night, which put an even stricter timer on Cousins in the pocket than usual.

The only other explanation I can muster (save for the weather, which was really only an issue at the very end) is that the Vikings did not want to incite a shootout against Russell Wilson. In running the ball effectively and playing for quick passes, including a number of screen passes, the Vikings could potentially win the game by suffocating the Seahawks out of chances. And that almost worked! The Vikings ate up 39:28 minutes of possession and were one fourth-down conversion away from putting things away. If that was indeed the plan, it was not a bad one, even if Wilson’s magic at the end made it all for naught.

Blame will always follow a loss, but this felt like a game where overwhelming blame on someone like Cousins or Mike Zimmer or Gary Kubiak is not necessary. The Vikings came in with a respectable game plan, executed it for most of the day, and were a play away from beating maybe the best team in the league on the road. Sometimes you know what happens. At least the Vikings now get a pseudo-bye week against the Falcons followed by a legit bye week before they go on a three-game NFC North stretch.

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