One year ago, the New York Jets — of all teams — discovered the blueprint to slow down the Minnesota Vikings passing game.
It’s easy to forget that prior to Week 7 in 2018 Kirk Cousins was one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. He had the league’s third best completion percentage, averaged over 300 yards per game, totaled 12 touchdowns with just three interceptions and managed a 102.7 quarterback rating (ninth in the NFL).
In a forgettable victory in the Meadowlands over the Jets, Cousins had a fine statistical day going 25-for-40 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Nothing to write home about. But the Vikings went just 2-for-15 on third down, in part because defensive-minded head coach Todd Bowles began double teaming Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Over the final 10 games, Cousins’ yards per attempt sunk to 6.9, ranking him just behind Ryan Tannehill and just ahead of Blaine Gabbert.
Aside from Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings simply did not have other options outside of their two star receivers. They also could not protect Cousins, who was pressured on 38.9% of drop backs, fifth most in the league.
The Vikings struggled to run the ball effectively with Dalvin Cook shelved by a hamstring injury at times and playing on a “pitch count” other times. The snowball effect of a poor offensive line was the Vikings finding themselves in third-and-long, failing to sustain drives and falling behind in games. They were forced to throw more and couldn’t use play-action passes.
During the offseason the Vikings made an effort to fix the issues around their $84 million quarterback. While Cousins had plenty of chances to overcome the problems on offense, especially in a Week 17 win-and-in contest in which the Bears sat starters late in the game, the team’s brass acknowledged that significant changes need to be made around him.
They drafted offensive players with their first four picks and added two late-round receivers to the mix as well, signed a starting right guard. Kevin Stefanski was named offensive coordinator with Gary Kubiak as offensive assistant, marking a philosophical change in the scheme with an aim at reflecting Cousins’ 2016 season, the best of his time in Washington.
Twice Cousins let the Vikings down with sub-par performances in Green Bay and Chicago but overall the Vikings passing game has emerged as one of the best in the NFL, ranking sixth in Expected Points Added (per Pro-Football Reference), first in yards per attempt and Cousins is No. 1 in the NFL in passer rating.
Following three marvelous performances in which the veteran quarterback registered ratings over 135 and threw for more than 300 yards in each, the question has emerged: What’s different? Has Cousins reached a new threshold in his career? Is he more motivated? More confident?
Before we get to the numbers, let Cousins answer:
“There’s no meter,” Cousins said. “I’m just staying steady. I’m the same guy. You have to prove it every week. You empty this bucket out. When I go back tomorrow morning, I take my file folder of Lions stuff and I put it in a bin that sits next to me, I empty my binder and I start over again. You flush it, you move on, you learn from it, whatever the game called for and then you get back to work and you don’t really ride a confidence roller coaster. You just stay the course.”
The course has simply been smoother for Cousins than it was last year in a bunch of different ways, starting with schedule.
One is competition. In Vikings wins, they have faced 32nd, 30th, 26th, 24th and 22nd ranked defenses in pass Expected Points Added. In losses they matched up with the fifth and sixth rated teams. Only one of the clubs the Vikings defeated ranks higher than 19th in sack percentage (New York) and none of the opponents are in the top half of the NFL in opposing passer rating.
Last year Cousins had five of his seven losses against teams with top-half EPAs against the pass and two of those L’s came against the Chicago Bears who were the runaway No. 1 passing defense in EPA. Six of his eight wins came against teams that ranked 20th or worse.
The trend isn’t different, the ratio of good vs. bad defenses has swung heavily toward struggling defenses on this year’s early schedule.
The Vikings run game has been massively better, which has reduced the number of third-and-long situations. In 2018 Cousins had the seventh most attempts on third downs with more than six yards to go (per PFR), this year he’s 17th in third-and-long attempts.
Cousins explained Sunday how their No. 2 ranked running game has opened up the playbook for Stefanski.
“It’s a big deal, not only in play-action game but you’re calling a first-and-10 run and the next thing you know it’s second-and-3, that keeps your whole playbook available,” Cousins said. “If you get in second-and-10, now their defense can call more prevent coverages that if you do want to take a shot it is not going to be there. The key is staying ahead of the chains where they have to call defenses that load the box so we can take shots to be successful and it was key over and over again. We are staying out of third downs, we’re not having to convert five or six on a drive because we’re going first, second, first, second down.”
And Stefanski is taking advantage of the opportunities to use all the options at his disposal. The Vikings are using play-action the second most of any team in the NFL (per PFF), allowing for deep shots down the field to Diggs and Thielen, who aren’t going to be double teamed often on second-and-short. Last year the Vikings used play-action on just 20.8% of snaps, which ranked 28th.
The offensive line is also helped by play-actions and short-yardage situations. Their PFF grades aren’t much different from last season (27th vs. 24th by PFF grades) but Cousins has only been sacked 12 times, which is tied for 21st in the NFL. He was sacked 40 times in 2018.
Part of the reason for the uptick may also be the addition of more weapons in the passing game. Aldrick Robinson and Laquon Treadwell were his No. 3 and 4 receiving options in ’18. Compare that to rookie Irv Smith, who has 12 catches on 14 targets for 153 yards and seventh-rounder Bisi Johnson (13 catches on 16 targets for 134 yards) and opponents have to factor for more gifted players than just Thielen and Diggs.
When we isolate Cousins’ performance by his throws and how he’s performed in similar situations such as clean pockets and with play-action, we can see that his small sample numbers are better than in ’18 but he’s still good at the same things as he’s always been good at.
2018: 116.1 (4th)
2019: 140.2 (1st)
2018: 108.5 (11th)
2019: 126.8 (1st)
If you rewind to 2015, Cousins finished the season as the No. 1 play-action QB in the NFL and No. 2 in clean pocket throwing. In 2016 he nearly reached 5,000 yards and Washington was the second best passing team in EPA in the NFL.
His early season performance overall has been excellent but it isn’t unprecedented. It only looks different compared to last season because things around him are now more favorable.
What that means for the future is hard to say. The schedule will offer some challenges ahead, including road games at Kansas City, Dallas and Seattle and home matchups against Green Bay and Chicago.
Cousins has made the postseason before, he’s had winning records before but he hasn’t won a playoff game. The current situation combined with a proper offensive system, playmakers abound and a weak overall NFC is setting up for him to make that part of his story different.