Vikings

Does Kirk Cousins Still Need Ideal Circumstances?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I wrote that Kirk Cousins‘ primetime Turkey Day performance was the best game since joining the Minnesota Vikings in 2018. To say that the quarterback’s debut season with Kevin O’Connell has been volatile would be a bit of an understatement. Whether it’s the uneven play Cousins has demonstrated throughout the course of a 60-minute game or his production as a whole this season, Vikings fans remain torn on their signal caller.

On the one hand, Cousins is still one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in third quarters. His 59.7 passer rating in third quarters has a lot to do with Minnesota’s recurring offensive lulls in the second half. And he’s still near the bottom of the NFL against the blitz. Only Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones are worse than Cousins’ 81.1 passer rating when opposing defenses send additional blitzers.

On the other hand, Crunch Time Cousins continues to shine when the chips are down in the fourth quarter. He leads the NFL with six fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. And since Cousins has put a serious dent in the narrative that has followed him for much of his career — the allegation that he can’t step up when his team needs him the most in money time — the time has come to poke holes in another story that the football world has spent years dogging Cousins on.

For much of Cousins’ tenure with the Vikings, local and national talking heads have claimed something along the lines of, Cousins needs everything around him to be picture-perfect to be successful.

Regardless of where you draw the line in the sand on this particular claim, you’ve been justified over the past two weeks. The Week 11 40-3 beatdown at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys was just more fuel for this fire. Then Cousins’ follow-up response against the New England Patriots put a noticeable (temporary?) dent into the narrative.

Maybe your interpretation of this claim is slightly different, but when I hear Cousins needs ideal circumstances, I immediately think of protection up front. That’s largely because offensive line shortcomings are typically the go-to excuse from the Cousins Crusaders when his play experiences a dip, and because the Vikings have rolled out offensive lines year after year that rank near the bottom of the league in pass protection.

Despite the meteoric rise of second-year left tackle Christian Darrisaw, the Vikings’ offensive line still finds itself towards the bottom of the league in pressures allowed. Cousins has been pressured on 38.4% of his dropbacks this season, which is the fifth-highest in the league. But that hasn’t deterred him from playing at a top-10 level while simultaneously overcoming pressure.

And when Cousins was without his best pass protector in Darrisaw in Week 12, he diced up arguably one of the best pass-rushing fronts and defenses as a whole.

Over the past four weeks, the Vikings have gone 3-1 against some of the best defensive fronts in the league today (Washington Commanders, Buffalo Bills, Cowboys, and Patriots). Over that four-game stretch, Cousins recorded an 85.0 passer rating — which is right in line with his season-long passer rating of 88.6. But when looking at Cousins’ production while under pressure from some of the league’s best pass-rushing defenses, you’ll find just how impactful Cousins has been while experiencing less-than-ideal circumstances up front.

For context, Justin Fields leads the league in percentage of dropbacks with pressure at 47.2%. Daniel Jones is second with 44.8% of dropbacks with pressure. And on the year, only Tua Tagovailoa (103.4), Geno Smith (95.5), and Joe Burrow (95.3) have better passer ratings under pressure than what Cousins has demonstrated over the past four weeks. (It’s worth mentioning that Tua’s sample size under pressure is much smaller than most, as he’s been pressured on just 72 of his 303 dropbacks (23.8%) this season.)

Make no mistake about it, Cousins’ production is at an elite level after being dealt a seven-two off suit from his offensive line over the past four games. And what he was able to accomplish without Darrisaw against New England last week makes it extremely difficult to subscribe to this theory that Cousins needs everything around him to be flawless to be successful.

With his backup left tackle Blake Brandel losing up front on this particular play against the NFL’s sack leader in Matt Judon, Cousins delivers an absolute dime from the pocket while taking a shot from Judon.

With Darrisaw’s status for Week 13 still in doubt as of Tuesday, Cousins will need to continue to debunk this theory that he needs everything around him to be picture-perfect. After all, according to Pro Football Focus, the New York Jets’ pass rush is graded as the fourth-best throughout the NFL. It’s more than fair to expect another Sunday where Cousins is forced to deal with a large percentage of dropbacks with pressure, especially if Darrisaw isn’t cleared by Sunday. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams is making a strong case to be an All-Pro, and edge rushers John Franklin-Myers and Carl Lawson both have pressure rates that exceed 10%.

Chaotic pockets are nothing new for Cousins this season, especially over the past four games. But this narrative about Cousins needing everything around him to be ideal might soon be extinct — if it isn’t already.

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Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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