EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins’ first season as a Minnesota Viking has been a roller coaster ride.
Whether you look at his quarterback ratings, Pro Football Focus grades, ESPN’s QBR or use the old eye test, you come to the conclusion that he opened the season with strong performances but has hit bumps along the way before a strong showing against the Miami Dolphins in a 41-17 win at US Bank Stadium in interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s first game calling the shots.
One consistent part of Cousins’ game that Stefanski was able to utilize was his ability to hit deep shots down the field. On throws that traveled more than 10 yards, Cousins went 7-for-8 with two touchdowns.
Using play-action and extra protection, the Vikings were able to give Cousins time to throw down field. He was only pressured eight times against the Dolphins.
On the year, the Vikings’ franchise QB is one of the best deep and intermediate passers in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins has the seventh highest quarterback rating when throwing more than 20 yards down field. He only trails the likes of Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Pat Mahomes and Philip Rivers.
Cousins hasn’t just been bailed out on deep balls by his excellent receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. PFF ranks him ninth on deep pass accuracy percentage.
His results this season match up with his downfield numbers in three years as a starter in Washington D.C. In 2017, Cousins ranked third in QB rating on downfield throws and eighth in accuracy. In 2016, he was fourth in rating and eighth in accuracy.
But Cousins hasn’t thrown deep passes nearly enough. Out of 23 quarterbacks with at least 45 deep attempts, the Vikings’ starter ranks 20th in percentage of throws that go deep with only 10.1 percent of his throws going beyond 20 yards.
On intermediate throws between 11 and 20 yards through the air, the Vikings are gaining 10.4 yards per attempt. Cousins has especially been effective in the middle of the field on intermediate throws. According to PFF, he’s gone 25-for-36 with 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions on such pass attempts.
While the Vikings tried to mitigate the rush by using quick throws, Cousins has been surprisingly ineffective throughout his career on throws behind the line of scrimmage. PFF uses a 1-100 system to grade each area of the field and throwing behind the line has consistently scored some of his lower grades, especially when looking to his right. He’s never surpassed a 70 grade (which is about average) on such throws.
One of the issues with making deep and intermediate throws work is that opponents have begun using double teams against Thielen and Diggs, especially in key situations like third-and-long.
“We spend a lot of time talking about that… it’s complicated,” Stefanski said on Thursday. “At times you are going to try to get them open. At times you are going to say, ‘Listen, there’s one football and someone else is going to win.’ There is a bunch of different aspects and a bunch of different ways to attack that and certainly when we have the skill guys when we have, I understand defense that try to do that, but then it’s our job to get in the meeting room upstairs and draw up some plays that don’t completely take our guys out of it but that allow us to have some success, particularly on third down.”
Receiver Aldrick Robinson could see more of the field if the Vikings make a concerted effort to take deep shots. The veteran, who ran a 4.4 40-yard dash once upon a time, has quickly proven to be dangerous in one-on-one situations. That was on display with a 40-yard touchdown against the Dolphins.
Running back Dalvin Cook can also be a vertical threat. He has not yet been used in any downfield throws, but occasionally ran “go” routes at Florida State.
Stefanski found ways to throw downfield with both three receiver sets and heavy personnel packages. Robinson’s touchdown came with three receivers, but a 33-yard catch on third-and-short came with an extra lineman, two TEs and a fullback in the game. He talked Thursday about the value of using different personnel to his team’s advantage.
“I think we are trying to put a plan together where you’re unpredictable,” Stefanski said. “Certainly if you’re staying in one personnel grouping at times and you’re running it and you’re throwing it, I think that can make yourself unpredictable to the defense. On the other hand, you like to mix in personnel so that they have different people running on the field and they have to defend against different people. I think you try to find that balance of staying in one personnel grouping, and there are some teams that stay exclusively in one personnel grouping. There is some thought to that, too. And making yourself difficult to defend and throw out multiple tight ends then throw multiple wide receivers out.”
The toughest part of Stefanski’s job this week will be balancing the use of concepts that were successful last week to create explosive plays with the fact that the Lions have one game of his play calling on tape.
“It’s important to know yourself and I am talking about our staff and knowing our scheme and knowing our plays,” Stefanski said. “We try to know ourselves as well as the opponent does because that informs us in our decisions and in our scheming and in our game planning.”
If the same basic principles hold up from week to week, we could see a higher number of runs and deep shots than we did for much of the season. And that plays to Cousins’ strength throwing down field.