In each of the Minnesota Vikings’ key losses to the Chicago Bears, quarterback Kirk Cousins was routinely under pressure.
In two matchups with their NFC North foe, Chicago pressured Cousins 45 times on 97 drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus data. He finished those two games with just a 77.7 quarterback rating and 5.0 yards per attempt.
Those numbers should come as no surprise considering the incredible talent on the Bears’ defense and the shorthanded Vikings offensive line.
It would be fair to say the ability of the Chicago defense to get in Cousins’ face was a game-changer in the Vikings’ two losses, but the bigger question is: Should the Vikings’ struggles protecting Cousins be blamed for the team coming up one game short of the playoffs?
Let’s have a look at what the numbers say…
Kirk Cousins was certainly pressured at a high rate, but was not the most rushed QB in the NFL. According to PFF, he was given a pocket to throw on 61.1 percent of his dropbacks, which was the fifth lowest rate. Russell Wilson, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and DeShaun Watson were pressured more.
Some other top quarterbacks who were routinely pressured included Patrick Mahomes (64.8 percent) and Philip Rivers (64.7 percent)
Cousins was the seventh highest rated quarterback when pressured with a 83.1 rating. Houston’s DeShaun Watson ranked first at 88.2.
That should give you a good sense of how much pressure impacts even the best quarterbacks.
PFF graded Cousins as the most accurate quarterback in the NFL under pressure. He completed 64.0 percent of his passes, but gained just 6.8 yards per attempt.
One thing we know from years of data is that quarterbacks see fluctuation in their numbers while under pressure. One year a QB might be toward the top of the NFL under pressure and another year he might slip. Last season with Washington his rating was just 66.3 and he was 18th in accuracy.
The Vikings’ QB tended to get the ball to receivers when pressured, taking a sack on 15.4 percent of pressures, which ranks ninth in the NFL. He threw the ball away just 13 times, which ranked 17th in the league.
While the offensive line had a challenging year, PFF credits Cousins with creating 17 (out of 259) of his own pressures, whether that’s from not sensing pressure or holding the ball too long. He ranked 12th in the time it took for defenses to sack him, 17 starting quarterbacks got the ball out quicker than Cousins and 11 QBs spent less time in the pocket.
Cousins ranked 16th of 30 QBs with at least 350 drop backs in percentage of throws in which he spent more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket. On average, Cousins waited 5.2 seconds in the pocket before running. There were 22 QBs who decided to run in less time. Only nine of Cousins’ total 17 scrambles came because of pressure.
You could reasonably take away from those numbers that, while the offensive line was certainly allowing the defense to get in Cousins’ face, he wasn’t helping them by getting the ball out quickly or escaping the pocket.
Interestingly, he was outstanding when opponents blitzed, posting a 104.5 rating with eight touchdowns, two interceptions and 7.6 yards per attempt.
When kept clean…
Numbers with a clean pocket tend to be much more sustainable.
Cousins ranked 11th in quarterback rating when kept clean this season at 108.5. The league’s top clean passer was Mahomes with a 134.2 rating. The Vikings’ quarterback averaged just 7.3 yards per attempt with a clean pocket. Mahomes averaged 9.5 per clean throw.
Overall he completed 73.5 percent of passes when clean with 2,873 of his 4,298 yards coming with a solid pocket and 24 of Cousins’ total 30 touchdowns were without pressure.
He remained one of the more accurate QBs when given time to throw, ranking sixth by PFF, though his average depth of target may have played into that number. NFL NextGen stats show Cousins as having the eight shortest average yards per target and only five quarterbacks threw into tight coverage less. Both of those things play into his high completion percentage numbers.
When Kevin Stefanski took over as offensive coordinator, he made more of an effort to create time for Cousins to throw by using play-actions and bootlegs, but the Vikings’ QB still finished 28th in drop back percentage with play-action (among QBs with at least 20 play-action plays). He ranked 10th in QB rating with play-action.
Overall Cousins was one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL, but his performance under pressure also mitigated some of the impact of that pressure. He also did not improve the offensive line as many quarterbacks with top-notch pocket presence or mobility as Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum did in 2015 and 2017. Nor did Cousins get the ball out particularly quickly like Sam Bradford did in 2016. Like a mirror that makes objects appear closer than they are, Cousins made pressure appear worse than it was, in some cases.
When he was not pressured, which was the majority of the time, Cousins performed at a mid-pack level. The Vikings need to work diligently this offseason to not only find ways to improve on the offensive line to lower his pressure percentage, but continue to scheme him away from pressure since he does not naturally escape defenders.