CHICAGO — At some point this offseason — maybe it was minicamp or OTAs — Kirk Cousins stood at the podium and explained that he went on an analytics quest this offseason. Two of his takeaways were that using play-action is efficient and that last year’s fumble luck were an anomaly. But the Minnesota Vikings scheme change hasn’t proven more efficient through one quarter of the season and his fumble luck hasn’t changed — in fact it’s gotten worse.
In just four games, Cousins has fumbled six times (leads the NFL) and the Vikings rank 24th in Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Points Added” in the passing game. Cousins has been one of the most pressured QBs in the NFL and heading into Week 4 the Vikings’ veteran QB was holding the ball longer from snap to release than any other player in the league. On Sunday he was sacked six times for 51 yards lost, had two fumbles and was pressured on 17 of 42 drop backs.
“We talked about it last night in the meeting, we gotta protect the football in the pocket,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’re big stripping the balls in the pocket. We gotta do a better job there and we gotta make sure we do that, and we didn’t do it today.”
The question is whether there is any fix. The Vikings have poured assets into the offensive line recently with a third-round pick at left guard, second-round pick at right tackle, first-round pick at center, $54 million left tackle and free agent right guard (who did not play Sunday). A Pro Football Focus study this offseason noted that quarterbacks often bring much of their own pressure. Over the last two seasons and four games this year, Cousins has been sacked 89 times in 36 games.
The most notable sack in the Vikings 16-6 loss came from superstar Khalil Mack, who blew past left tackle Riley Reiff for a strip sack. Following the game, Cousins did not have an answer for how he could have avoided the turnover.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can do,” he said. “I think the key is to, you know, you play fast and you — if you play with kind of looking at him and worrying about him, then you’re going to miss a lot. So you have to kind of play trusting it and letting it go, and that one was just really unfortunate. I think he got a good jump, and I’m putting my hands apart to throw it to Irv and he got there and does a great job going after the football. That one was really unfortunate.”
Over the last three years, Cousins’ sacks allowed have jumped and his efficiency dipped. Adjusting for sacks, Cousins averages 6.3 yards per attempt over the last three seasons (15 teams currently have higher marks).
In 2018, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo used a quick passing game in attempts to cut down on sacks and pressures. Cousins was asked following Sunday’s game whether the Vikings need to turn back to shorter throws if they continue to struggle with allowing pressures. The Vikings moved on from DeFilippo to Gary Kubiak/Kevin Stefanski to focus on play-action throws and explosive plays downfield.
“I think you have to choose who you’re going to be and go with it, and that doesn’t mean that we’re going to get everybody everything all the time,” Cousins said. “We’re going to have to pick our spots, and there’s always going to be those plays that you want back.”
The offensive line is not without blame. They entered Sunday as the second worst pass protecting unit in the NFL by PFF standards, only ahead of the Miami Dolphins.
“Our job is protect the quarterback and running the football and we did not do that today, so I’m going to put that on me,” center Garrett Bradbury said. “Everyone has to look at themselves in the mirror and what they could have done better.’’
Several players in the locker room made note of the fact that they have 12 more weeks and the season is hardly over at 2-2. While that may be true they are 0-2 in the division and last in a tough NFC North. If answers for Cousins’ pressure issues don’t come soon, they could fall far farther behind.
Defensive end Everson Griffen summed up the feeling in the locker room succinctly.
“We’ve just got to revisit and go back to the drawing board and figure out ways to score points,” he said.