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For Cousins to improve, Vikings must fix pass protection struggles

For good reason, Kirk Cousins took the blame for Sunday’s 21-16 loss to the Green Bay Packers. But the story doesn’t end with the Minnesota Vikings quarterback throwing an ill-advised pass that resulted in an interception. Throughout the game the Vikings’ pass protection struggled mightily.

With two weeks in the books, Cousins ranks No. 1 in percentage of drop backs under pressure at 60.9% with the next highest through two weeks being DeShaun Watson at 50.7%.

Last year Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when pressured, posting a solid 83.1 quarterback rating. However, his 2018 performance with pass rushers in his face was an outlier for Cousins’ career. In his previous three seasons as a starter he managed 61.1, 67.1 and 65.9 ratings under pressure.

Through two games, Cousins has completed just nine of 24 throws with pressure. Here are his numbers with and without pressure so far:

No pressure: 13-for-18 (72.2% completion), 154 yards (8.6 per attempt), zero touchdowns, one interception, 74.8 rating

Pressure: 9-for-24 (37.5% completion), 177 yards (7.4 per attempt), two touchdowns, one interception, 74.5 rating

The issues protecting the QB aren’t entirely on the Vikings’ offensive line. Cousins currently has the slowest snap-to-release in the NFL at 3.15 seconds. Last year amidst O-line issues he ranked 17th of 30 in snap-to-release time. A PFF study this offseason found that quarterbacks have a great impact on their own pressure rate.  So in this case it has been a collaborative effort.

But the performances up front haven’t been impressive. The Vikings have the second lowest team graded pass blocking score and center Garrett Bradbury received a 0.0 grade in Week 1 and 16.3 in Week 2. To put that in context, Pat Elflein’s worst single game grade in 2018 was a 37.2 and the Vikings moved him to guard. Former tackle TJ Clemmings’ worst grade in 2016 was a 31.9.

Most of the pressure has been coming from the center and left guard. In Elflein’s place on Sunday Dakota Dozier allowed six pressures. On the outside right tackle Brian O’Neill has only given up one pressure and Riley Reiff three in the first two weeks. The Falcons and Packers clearly game planned to put a great deal of emphasis on attacking the middle.

What went wrong? Can it be fixed? Let’s take a look at five plays that represent the myriad of problems keeping Cousins clean…

On our first play, rusher Zadarius Smith (No. 56) simply beats tackle Riley Reiff off the edge and forces Cousins to escape and make a throw downfield on the run.

Last year Reiff ranked 38th of 62 tackles by PFF in pass blocking. His worst games came against edge rushers with exceptional speed and quickness like Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes (12 pressures allowed) and Chicago’s Khalil Mack (11 pressures in two games against Chicago). Reiff’s strength and power allows him to match up against power rushers but the burst from Smith shows his weakness. The Packers lined up Smith wide in the nine technique to take advantage.

The Falcons and Packers both used fronts with three D-linemen in the middle and two edge rushers wide. It would not be surprising to see teams throughout the year trying to beat Reiff wide.

We see a similar affect with Preston Smith (91) outside in our next play. This time both Smiths are lined up on one side and both beat their man. Preston on the edge and Zadarius (56) over guard Dakota Dozier.

This play was a third-and-long situation, which allowed Green Bay to focus solely on rushing Cousins with no fear that the Vikings would run the ball. In those spots, opposing teams will continually be able to find mismatches on the Vikings OL, whether it’s Dozier or Elflein starting.

Had Cousins not fumbled, his rush would have been the right play and given the Vikings a first down. But his propensity to lose the ball combined with a lack of natural running skill gives opposing defenses little fear of Cousins using his legs.

Our next play should be especially concerning.

The Vikings attempt to run a play-action bootleg by Cousins but the play is blown up by Preston Smith (91). Normally the expectation is that the edge rusher will follow the tackle down the line in order to guard against a cut back by the running back.

In this case Smith slow plays rather than attacking down the line . When Cousins turns around, Smith is right in his face, forcing a throw away. The worry here should be that opposing teams are prepared for the Vikings’ play-action bootlegs and rushers coming from the nine technique will attack the quarterback rather than focusing on the run.

These play-actions out of I-formations are a staple of the Vikings offense. If defenses have an answer, it will require an adjustment by Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski.

After a tremendously bad offensive pass interference call that cost the Vikings a touchdown, they still had a chance to score and cut the lead to seven points. But Bradbury simply got blown up and the nose tackle forces Cousins to throw high over Kyle Rudolph.

The fact that Zadarius Smith beat Reiff earlier in the game may have influenced Dozier’s decision to help on the edge rather than giving Bradbury assistance in the middle or he may have expected right guard Josh Kline to help. Whatever went wrong, a three-man rush shouldn’t influence the quarterback into throwing off balance or shortening his step.

Our final play shows the Vikings trying to use slide protection with three D-linemen on the weak side. While O’Neill gets beat inside, Cook does a nice job of helping but CJ Ham misses entirely on his attempt to chop block No. 91, leaving a free run at the quarterback.

What you can’t see from this angle is that receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were both running “go” routes down the sideline against cover-3, which meant they were one-on-one against their respective corners. That often results in big plays for Minnesota but Cousins had no chance to look deep.

It would appear that this protection call was designed to help Bradbury but trying to cover weaknesses often creates other weak spots.

Bottom line

There isn’t a quick-fix solution for the Vikings when it comes to their pass protection. We can expect Bradbury to make adjustments going forward but rookies often struggle to adjust to NFL competition. They may need to use more creative screen passes to take advantage of the defense’s aggressiveness and even use a 2018-style solution, which is quick throws to Thielen and Diggs. These trends are likely to continue, how the Vikings deal with them might determine whether they are playing in January or not.


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