Through four weeks, the Minnesota Vikings’ passing game is one of the least effective in the NFL.
The Vikings rank:
Of course the season is far from over.
At this same point last year (per Pro-Football Reference) the Vikings were fifth in passing yards, eighth in passer rating and sixth in passing touchdowns. They ranked 18th in yards over the final 12 weeks.
Things can change quickly in the NFL but does that mean that the flood of criticism that has been an overreaction? Or do the numbers reflect the Vikings’ immediate future on offense? Let’s have a look at the odds that quarterback Kirk Cousins and the passing attack will return to form…
Stefanski has people open
The Vikings made it very clear that their plan this offseason was to put Cousins back into an offense that focused on play-action throws and maximized his ability to work the ball downfield. The strategy is supposed to be enhanced by the fact that the Vikings have two of the best deep receivers in the NFL in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
The results are not impressive yet but opportunities for big plays have been there each week. Against the Green Bay Packers, Cousins overthrew Stefon Diggs on a deep pass that just escaped his reach. The same thing happened on the Vikings’ first drive in Chicago only with Thielen diving for the ball and coming up just short.
There were also numerous instances of receivers running wide open on Sunday but Cousins appeared to be rattled by the Bears’ ability to create pressure.
Here’s an example in which the Vikings stretch the field with Thielen and Diggs each on the same side of the formation. The play-fake draws the Bears’ linebacker in, leaving the entire middle of the field open for Diggs. Cousins instead checks down to fullback CJ Ham.
The beauty of play-action is that it allows you to set up explosive pass plays. That’s an element that’s missing from the Vikings offense. The play below is a prime example of what’s lacking. Check out where Thielen & Diggs go and how open they both are. pic.twitter.com/NLQ2nBDw1e
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) September 30, 2019
If we surmise that Cousins’ issues finding the open receivers were at least partially caused by Chicago’s pass rush, we can assume that most teams will not be able to create the same type of disruption and that the Vikings’ quarterback will find his receivers open more often than not.
His Week 3 touchdown pass to Thielen against Oakland is evidence of that (via NFLNextGEN)
Cousins has actually hit on six of his 10 throws over 20 yards this year. The ones in Green Bay and Chicago stick out because they were game-changing.
If the Vikings continue to scheme options off play-actions for Cousins to find receivers deep, he should be able to find them more often going forward.
Cousins has always been better than this
When it comes to traditional statistics, Cousins’ exceptional yard, touchdown and QB rating marks haven’t always been a reflection of how well he actually played but even the deeper-dive numbers suggest that he will be much better over the final 12 games.
Cousins is currently ranked 22nd out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus grades. Over his four previous seasons as a starter, he’s ranked 13th (74.7), eighth (80.6), 19th (70.0) and 13th (79.3).
By ESPN’s 1-100 QBR system, which attempts to take into account game situation with performance, Cousins is 32nd (29.2) of 33 QBs. He finished sixth (67.8), fifth (66.5), 15th (56.0) and 14th (59.5) from 2015-2018.
Cousins has traditionally been one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the NFL, ranking fourth last year in passer rating off a play-fake. This year he’s 19th of 22 qualifying QBs.
He’s often been a solid passer from a clean pocket, ranking 11th last year and as high as second (2015) in his career. So far in 2019 he’s 23rd.
The Vikings’ quarterback has had rough stretches before and worked through them. In 2015, he saw a four game stretch with PFF grades of 57.0, 74.7, 60.6 and 45.1 and then followed up with three straight strong games and an overall quality end to the year.
Cousins started off his best season, 2016, in slow fashion as well, grading under a 65 in four of the first five games. He ended up finishing the year with six above average games in seven starts. Last year he had one of the worst games of his career against Buffalo only to bounce back with two strong performances against Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
At every point in his career, Cousins has been between an average and above average starter. Even with a difficult schedule, he has 75% of the season remaining to get to that point again.
He’s holding the ball too long and the Vikings can’t pass protect
When discussing Cousins’ past and what it means toward the future, the 2016 season — his best by a wide margin — can’t be used to compare to the present circumstances. In ’16, Washington rated as the eighth best pass blocking team in the NFL, led by their superstar left tackle Trent Williams. The Vikings are presently 30th by PFF’s evaluation.
The Vikings’ passing game might be able to survive struggling pass pro if they had a quarterback who got the ball out quickly — but that quarterback is not Cousins. On five of his six sacks against the Bears, he held the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. Overall he ranks dead last for time from snap to throw at 2.90 seconds on average and is 24th in percentage of drop backs that feature quick throws. When holding the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, he’s 20th in QB rating thus far.
This issue does not appear to be fixable. Even when John DeFilippo was ordering up quick throws last year, Cousins still finished 17th in time in pocket per throw.
There doesn’t appear to be a quick fix.
He’s struggled even when kept clean
On the occasion that the pass blocking has held up (52.2% of the time without pressure per PFF), Cousins hasn’t made throws. His passer rating when clean this year is 31st in the league at 89.9.
On Monday, head coach Mike Zimmer came close to saying that he may have been seeing ghosts.
“I think there were times that he might have got rid of it a little too soon,” he said. “When you’re getting pounded a few times, sometimes you’ve got to take the quick throw.”
If that is the case, the issues when clean might not change.
He isn’t throwing downfield or taking risks
Zimmer also acknowledged Cousins didn’t take chances on Sunday.
“There’s times where you just have to pull the trigger and believe you’re going to make the throw,” he said. ” There [were] times that he got the ball out really good, the one behind Adam (Thielen), just a little bit behind him, he got that ball out good. There was some other ones. We just have to keep working on it.”
According to NFL NextGen stats he was the least aggressive QB in the NFL in Week 4, rarely throwing in the direction of receivers who were closely trailed by defenders.
This isn’t a new issue but is certainly seems to be enhanced by the problems up front. Last year he was NextGEN’s fourth least aggressive QB.
With only 10 deep throws through four weeks, he is 26th in attempts downfield, ranking behind Ben Roethlisberger, who played two games.
Not only will it be difficult to put up big numbers if Cousins doesn’t take shots downfield, you would expect the frustration to grow from his receivers.
The sample size is growing and the schedule is brutal
Every time Cousins loses an important game, the remarkable stats come flying onto social media at rapid speed. He has five career wins against winning teams. The Vikings are 2-9-1 in either primetime games or games against Green Bay/Chicago since Cousins arrived. And on and on.
The strongest argument for his problems continuing is that the belief that he can win important games and maximize this team’s strong roster is that it’s almost always happened every time there’s a chance to turn around the narrative. There has to be a psychological impact on Cousins and the team each time they come apart in a game like Sunday’s loss in Chicago. If he doesn’t turn things around quickly, the monster will continue to grow.
Things don’t get any easier going forward. The Vikings have road games against Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City, Seattle and Los Angeles on the way and the NFC North is proving to be incredibly difficult. Several of those games are also in primetime and the door is always open to a Buffalo-like meltdown against easier teams like New York, Denver and Washington. The margin for error is thin in the North.
There is enough evidence on each side to figure that the truth will probably end up somewhere in the middle. Cousins’ history certainly suggests that he’s good enough to put teams in the running and he’s still very much in the prime of his career, so that shouldn’t change with a good supporting cast around him.
It might only take one of those wins to propel the Vikings. And one or two more losses could cause chaos.