I don’t have to tell you that Kirk Cousins had a rough night in Philadelphia. You can look at the statistical profile of his performance from pretty much any angle and come away with the correct conclusion that he played poorly. That’s probably not all you want to know, though. The real question on anyone’s mind is if Cousins will continue to play poorly.
What happened here? How did Cousins go from a fringe MVP candidate to a national laughingstock? Your answer might be that it is natural to Kirk Cousins. He’s a streaky, inconsistent quarterback, and this game is far from anomalous. I want to get more specific, though. You may have heard the word “rattled” used to describe Cousins on Monday night. That’s almost certainly driven by a handful of lowlights, nearly all of which occurred against the blitz.
Saying a QB is “bad against the blitz” is a bit too broad to be useful. Responding to blitzes requires a wide array of skills and strategies. Between setting protections, changing plays, and even mid-play adjustments, you must execute quickly and correctly to counter a blitz. The main problem on Monday night regarded “hot” reads.
In short, a hot read is a planned response to a blitz that sends more pass rushers than the offense has pass protectors. If there is an extra, unblocked rusher, that player becomes the quarterback’s responsibility. The quarterback’s job is to abandon the traditional passing progression and throw to a pre-determined hot route. That hot route is typically a checkdown, shallow cross, or another quickly developing outlet that will often attack the space that a blitzer vacates.
First, let’s look at a textbook example from elsewhere in the league. Hat tip to J.T. O’Sullivan at his YouTube channel, The QB School, for breaking down this example of Trevor Lawrence. O’Sullivan is a former NFL quarterback and current high school coach, giving him a much better base of knowledge than I have:
Let’s break down each of the featured Cousins plays. Those four were the most visible examples of him refusing to abandon the progression. The clearest example is the second one, a concept called “Branch Follow.” The “Branch” describes the right-side passing pattern, with a deep out and a decoy player, often a fullback or tight end, running a clear-out route. The “Follow” describes the “basic” (A.K.A. Dig) route run at the same depth, creating a horizontal stretch deep downfield.
But we don’t get to any of that because the Eagles send an all-out blitz. Seven men rush the passer, and the Vikings only have their five offensive linemen in coverage, plus Dalvin Cook if he’s needed. He is, so that makes six, but someone is still free. That means it’s Cousins’ job to identify the situation and find K.J. Osborn, who should be ready for the ball.
The key snag is that Cousins did not abandon the progression. The whole point of a hot read is to prevent this exact situation — Kirk Cousins, throwing off his back foot in a moment that requires much more precision than possible with an unblocked Eagle bearing down on you. The longer you stay in the progression, the more you’ve committed to one side of the field. At a certain point, it’s too late, and Cousins’ only move is to take a sack or throw a dangerously uncontrolled pass.
The worst example came near the end of the game, with the Vikings in the middle of the red zone. The Vikings had used many empty formations, leaving no extra blockers. Philadelphia, pressing their advantage late in the game, started to send more aggressive blitzes. When blood is in the water, the sharks will circle.
On the next play, the Eagles pushed the same button on a third-and-nine. Cousins — and the team at large — experienced the same failure. Perhaps it is most frustrating that Cousins couldn’t get a handle on this particular issue, so much so that the Eagles could rely on it.
This was far from the only weakness sinking Cousins’ night. His mechanics fell apart, as did his ability to navigate and manage risk. The clips above are only a few examples from a much more in-depth analysis of Cousins’ disastrous night. If you are seeking answers, or you’re just a glutton for punishment, consider joining me on Patreon for the whole thing.