The Minnesota Vikings head to London this weekend, where they’ll take on the 1-2 New Orleans Saints. After the Vikings opened up as a one-point favorite, the line has climbed to Minnesota minus three following the news that Jameis Winston is doubtful and Michael Thomas has been ruled out for Week 4. The Vikings are the superior team, with more talent on both sides of the ball, but the Saints are no strangers to winning this exact type of game.
Last year, the Saints hit the road to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Without Winston and former head coach Sean Payton, the Saints entered this particular Week 15 contest as 11.5-point underdogs. The interim head coach filling in for Payton was defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Allen’s defense dominated Tom Brady, holding the Buccaneers to 302 yards and a shutout. New Orleans’ defense also forced two turnovers in the shocking upset.
So before Skoldiers start their weekend by putting another check mark in the W column of Minnesota’s if Winston and Thomas are out, remember that it’s important not to discount Allen when he has a shorthanded roster in a big game. And, as luck would have it for Allen’s defense, this matchup against Kirk Cousins and Minnesota’s offense is exactly the type of game New Orleans could control with its defense and rushing attack.
Cousins has struggled mightily against the blitz in 2022. So far this season, this is how he has fared when defensive coordinators have decided to send additional pass rushers:
- 112 yards
- 2 touchdowns
- 2 interceptions
- 47.7 passer rating
Only Justin Fields and Mac Jones have a worse passer rating against the blitz this season. Oddly enough, Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in the league against the blitz last season. Minnesota’s signal-caller had the seventh-best passer rating in the league in 2021 against the blitz at 112.0.
When Dennis Allen smells blood in the water with an opposing quarterback who can’t sufficiently handle the blitz, he does everything in his power to expose them.
Just last week against Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers, Allen dialed up pressure packages on 48.3% of Mayfield’s dropbacks.
On the season, Allen and the Saints’ defense are blitzing opposing quarterbacks at just a 20.8% clip. Over the first two weeks against Marcus Mariota in Week 1 and Brady in Week 2, Allen’s defense only blitzed on 9.7% of their dropbacks. The low percentage of pressure packages for Allen against these quarterbacks was puzzling, to say the least. After all, Brady and Mariota rank 18th and 23rd, respectively, in passer rating against the blitz this season at 89.0 and 80.7.
If last week’s contest between the Saints and Panthers was any indication, one would expect Allen to continue to crank up the heat on Cousins and Minnesota’s offense with extensive blitz packages. Over the past two weeks against the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions, Cousins has been playing the worst football of his career against the blitz:
- 68 yards
- 1 touchdown
- 2 interceptions
- 26.9 passer rating
But why is Cousins suddenly crumbling against the blitz? Especially when you consider that Cousins has historically made defenses pay when they decided to bring pressure? Check out Cousins’ passer ratings against the blitz since he joined the Vikings:
- 2021: 112.0
- 2020: 106.9
- 2019: 122.2
- 2018: 102.3
It’s no secret that Kevin O’Connell has brought in a more modern offense, one that incorporates more wide receivers and prioritizes the passing game. Gone are the days when Minnesota leans into the running game with heavier 21- and 12-personnel packages featuring additional running backs and/or tight ends.
Despite the early-season bumps in the road, Vikings fans are still completely justified in clamoring for O’Connell’s 11-personnel-centric offense with Justin Jefferson. However, this scheme could very well be the culprit for Cousins’ futility against the blitz. Minnesota’s running game no longer protects him. Although the Vikings have one of the more efficient running games in the NFL — their 4.8 yards per carry is eighth-best throughout the league — they’re 26th in rushing attempts.
And spreading defenses out in 11-personnel removes having additional pass protectors in C.J. Ham or a backup tight end on the field.
If defensive coordinators no longer have to account for Minnesota’s running game, along with less literal protection from Ham or extra tight ends, then it might as well be an open invitation for these defensive play-callers to attack the QB. Instead of allowing Cousins to get comfortable in the pocket and go through his progressions, defenses have been daring him not only to identify the blitz pre-snap but also to get the ball out quickly and effectively.
So far this season, Cousins has proven that this is the best way to defend against Minnesota’s offense. Could it be that Cousins is going through the usual growing pains of an entirely new system? Possibly.
For context, take a look at how Matthew Stafford fared against the blitz over his first three games while playing in this scheme last season with O’Connell, Sean McVay, and the Los Angeles Rams:
- 239 yards
- 1 touchdown
- 119.8 passer rating
That’s what competent quarterback play looks like in the NFL. And, until proven otherwise, defensive coordinators will keep daring Cousins to beat them against the blitz.
The Saints will be shorthanded without their starting quarterback and top wide receiver. But as long as Cousins continues to crumble beneath pressure packages, Allen and New Orleans will keep playing the role of aggressor.
For this Vikings team to be taken seriously as an NFC contender, Cousins has to correct his shortcomings against the blitz. Whether or not those corrections take place in Week 4, Allen and his defense will certainly put Cousins to the test with pressure early and often.