Is O'Connell's Offense Exposing the Upper Limits Of Cousins' Play?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings sit atop the NFC North at 3-1 and would be the second seed in the NFC if the playoffs were to start today. If you were to tell the Vikings faithful before the season began that the team would be in this position, no doubt they would be pretty satisfied.

Yet there seems to be a sense of dissatisfaction amongst the fanbase, and it’s easy to see why. The Vikings looked vulnerable against the Detroit Lions and the New Orleans Saints, two 1-3 teams that were not at full strength when they played Minnesota. The Philadelphia Eagles blew them out on Monday Night Football. Philadelphia is an elite team with newfound Super Bowl aspirations. Still, that loss wasn’t very reassuring for those questioning the Vikings’ ceiling.

Kirk Cousins is a significant cause of the brewing skepticism. While Cousins has been the subject of heated debate since his arrival, some of his biggest supporters are starting to get concerned. In previous years, Cousins always looked solid against mediocre teams and had good stats. That hasn’t really been the case this season. Aside from the opener against the Packers, he’s looked out of sync with his receivers.

In the clip below, Cousins tries to get the ball to Thielen. However, Avonte Maddox is all over it and ends up undercutting the route for the interception. That’s a pass that Cousins should have never thrown because Thielen was double-covered. Instead, he forced the issue despite the Vikings being in field goal range, and it ended up being the nail in the coffin for Minnesota.

Below is another example of Cousins forcing the issue. The Vikings are up 7-0 late in the first quarter. They have all the momentum against a Saints team riddled with injuries on the offensive side of the ball. Cousins makes the right read to Irv Smith Jr. running the go route. However, it’s a couple of seconds late, giving Tyrann Mathieu ample time to undercut the route for the interception. This play gave the Saints momentum, scoring a touchdown on the ensuing drive.

Heading into Week 5, Cousins has already thrown four interceptions and owns an 84.1 QB rating. For context, he only threw seven interceptions last season. His current QB rating is his lowest since 2013 when he was in his second year with Washington. So what’s the reason behind Cousins’ early struggles?

A big part of it is learning Kevin O’Connell‘s new offense. As expected, it’s taking time for him and the rest of the players on offense to get acquainted with the scheme. Thielen called it the toughest offense he’s had to learn. But there’s more to it than that. Cousins has been in conservative offenses that shielded his weaknesses throughout his career — lots of handoffs to the running backs to set up the play-action passing game. For every pass attempt Cousins got, it felt like double the number of rushing attempts.

But O’Connell has thrown that 1990s offensive scheme out the window. Dalvin Cook is still involved in the run game, and Cousins is still running play-action, but to a much lesser extent than before. O’Connell wants the offense to be aggressive on their own terms. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, the plays O’Connell has been drawing up are beautiful. Opposing defenses must account for all the Vikings’ weapons constantly moving around the field pre-snap. Additionally, Cousins now has the option to audible out of a play or rush up to the line of scrimmage and play tempo.

On the other hand, O’Connell’s offense has been the cause of Cousins’ struggles. That’s not to say O’Connell is a bad coach; I think he is one of the brightest in the league. However, his scheme is extremely complex, which has created some communication problems for the offense in the early going.

O’Connell thinks Cousins will improve as he gets more comfortable with the new offense. But you have to wonder how much leeway Cousins has before his play becomes a serious issue. The Vikings will host the Chicago Bears this week, which should be an easy matchup. But the team is fast approaching a tough stretch: Minnesota will play the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, and Buffalo Bills in the coming weeks. The team could hit a losing streak midseason if Cousins and the offense can’t get in rhythm.

The silver lining here is that the Vikings are 3-1 and first in the division. Cousins needs to learn how to maximize O’Connell’s offense to stay that way.

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