When the Minnesota Vikings considered whether to re-sign Case Keenum or sign Kirk Cousins to — at the time — the most lucrative quarterback contract in history, one of the factors in projecting Cousins’ future production was his supporting cast, namely the Vikings’ receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. And through four games, the connection between Cousins and his receiving duo has been everything the Vikings could have dreamed.
That was especially on display on Thursday Night Football against the Los Angeles Rams, when the combo brought in 19 passes. Following the game, he talked about how the two receivers play off of each other.
“Stef caught a slant and it was high, a 43 blitz and I put it over him, unbelievable catch and after he caught it and we got back to the huddle, Adam looks at me and says, ‘the other dog came out, you better start getting him the ball,’” Cousins said. “I’ve been around Stef long enough, when he gets that look in his eye, get him the ball. I love to see that competitiveness and to see how Adam and him feed off each other.”
Thielen has been targeted 55 times, more than any other receiver in the NFL through four weeks. Cousins has 40 completions on those targets (72.2 percent completion percentage) for 473 yards and a QB rating of 110.6 when throwing Thielen’s way.
While Diggs doesn’t have quite as many targets, his efficiency is every bit as impressive. When throwing at Diggs, Cousins has gone 27-for-39 with 311 yards and a 118.6 rating.
Everything is coming together for the Cousins-Thielen/Diggs trio. The receivers are doing exactly what they’ve done for Sam Bradford and Case Keenum in the past: Line up all over the field and get open constantly.
Here’s a look at the number of different starting positions and routes that each player ran on Thursday via NFL NextGen stats:
Thielen leads the NFL with 28 receptions when lining up in the slot, while Diggs has caught 9-of-9 passes in his direction out of the slot.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has given each receiver opportunities to make plays with his play calling and scheme.
Take for example a 34-yard reception by Diggs on a screen pass.
The Vikings go empty set with running back Mike Boone motioned out to wide receiver. Boone and tight end Kyle Rudolph immediately turn into blockers at the snap and all the offensive linemen let the Rams’ defensive linemen and rushing middle linebacker go free. The Vikings’ O-linemen release upfield, giving Diggs a wall of blockers to use his quickness and playmaking ability with the ball for a huge gain.
Thielen’s 45-yard touchdown was a combination of scheme and execution by Cousins.
The Rams are playing cover-3, meaning there is only a single-high safety. Cousins dips his shoulder hard knowing that the safety will be reading his front shoulder. Once the center field safety makes a move toward Laquon Treadwell, Cousins turns back and fires a bullet to Thielen running free.
Here is another example of DeFilippo scheming Thielen into a favorable matchup with the “slot fade” concept.
Running back Roc Thomas lines up outside, giving the Vikings a coverage indicator. Since the Rams’ linebacker follows Thomas, Cousins knows it will be man coverage against Thielen. Thomas runs a quick hitch and Kyle Rudolph, also facing man coverage, runs a five-yard out. The single deep safety is 20 yards off the line of scrimmage, giving him no shot at reaching the boundary by the time the throw arrives. And once again, Cousins is on point and Thielen tracks the ball impressively well to make the grab.
Both receivers succeed in large part because of their technical skills — and Cousins has the arm strength and accuracy to get them the ball down field. On the play below, Diggs runs an out route, but there are some small details that allow him to send the cornerback tumbling to the ground.
Diggs stems the corner toward the inside, giving him the indication that it could be a seam or post route and snaps his arm and head inside right before breaking outside. Cousins is on time with a perfectly-timed throw despite pressure coming off the edge.
Here is a similar example with Thielen.
The Vikings’ star receiver is not only able to create separation just past the sticks for a first down, he keeps both feet in along the sideline. The throw from Cousins is nothing short of spectacular, especially with the tackle being pushed back into his face.
Through four weeks, Cousins ranks third in the NFL in passing yards, sixth in touchdowns and eighth in quarterback rating. While there has been three key fumbles and disappointing performances on the defensive side, the Vikings have gotten everything they could have hoped for from the Cousins-Thielen/Diggs connection.