MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins completed six fewer passes and threw for only 7 more yards against Miami on Sunday than he did the previous Monday in a loss at Seattle.
But there was a world of difference in how Cousins looked in the Vikings’ 41-17 victory over the Dolphins, the quarterback’s first game since John DeFilippo was fired as offensive coordinator and Kevin Stefanski was promoted from quarterbacks coach.
Cousins, whom the Vikings made a three-year, $84 million investment in as a free agent last offseason, looked afraid to make a mistake in a 21-7 loss in Seattle. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made it clear in his postgame comments that he had noticed this.
“I’ve talked to him a few times during the week this week,” Zimmer said. “When you’re in seventh grade and you took the ball and you went out there in the backyard with your buddies, you don’t run plays. You just play the game. I think that is what he needs to do is just play the game and let it unfold. You don’t want to be reckless but stuff breaks down all the time. You might call something for Cover-2 and it’s a two-man or something like that. Stuff happens. Just be a reactionary player and that is how guys play. I thought he did that today.”
The feeling from this end is that while Cousins is one of the top-paid quarterbacks in the NFL, the Vikings were making a mistake by asking him to play like an upper-echelon passer. He can be a good quarterback, but he isn’t a Top 10 QB and far too often DeFilippo was trying to ask Cousins to do too much.
That changed on Sunday. Cousins’ 14 completions and 21 attempts were both season-lows and running back Dalvin Cook, whom DeFilippo did not use nearly enough, had a season-high 19 rushing attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns. If anything, Cousins was asked to manage the offense more than doing anything dynamic and it worked. His 112.2 passer rating was his best since he posted a season-high 129.5 rating in a 24-17 victory over Green Bay in Week 12 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Cousins also completed his first eight passes before throwing an incompletion on the Vikings’ first drive of the second quarter.
“I go back to that it’s not the plays so much as the players and the execution,” Cousins said when asked about the play calling on Sunday. “I’ll go back to game after game this year where the plays are there, they’re good plays, but we’ve got to execute. We’ve got to make the coaches right. Today, I think there was execution early, quickly, and that enabled us to jump out to a lead and put our defense in a position where they like to be. It went from there.”
The Vikings’ offense came out throwing haymakers and scored touchdowns on its first three drives. The opening series ended with Cousins finding Stefon Diggs on a 13-yard touchdown pass. Cook then scored on a 13-yard run, and running back Latavius Murray added an 18-yard run to make it 21-0 after one quarter. Cousins’ 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Aldrick Robinson in the fourth quarter was a beautiful throw.
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Cousins also was used more under center and less in shotgun than he was when DeFilippo was calling plays.
While things went well, it was not a perfect day for Cousins.
The Viking were up by 21 when Cousins attempted to throw a screen pass to Diggs that was intercepted by Miami safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and returned 50 yards a touchdown. The Dolphins added a field goal before the quarter was finished and the momentum of the game shifted for an extended period at that point.
“I think you guys saw it,” Cousins said when asked about the pick. “I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know. It’s a screen, it’s a receiver screen, it’s quick hitting. I’m trying to negotiate the defensive end thinking the guy who picked it is going to be blocked and he wasn’t blocked. He jumped it and he guessed right. It’s a bang-bang play. We’ve thrown a lot of those this season and had a lot of success on them. Every single one of them is tight like that. It can be scary and you’re expecting that player to get influenced and picked in such a way that the receiver can catch it and go right around him. In this case, he jumped it and you saw the rest.”
The turnover was nothing new for Cousins. He has thrown 10 interceptions this season — three that have been returned for touchdowns — and has lost seven fumbles, two of which were turned into immediate scores. His 17 turnovers lead the NFL.
“I was actually on the blitz,” Fitzpatrick said. “When I walked into that 3 by 1, Diggs and those two, they were vertical. I had a couple guys call it out. I was able to just go since I was on the blitz and I didn’t have to be patient. So, I just went. Kirk was looking at them the entire time and I just looked at him.
Zimmer, perhaps wanting to dial down the pressure on his quarterback, said he didn’t say anything after Cousins threw his interception.
“Stuff happens during the course of the game,” Zimmer said. “No one said anything to me when I called that 75-yard run except for me. (Zimmer said his defensive play call on the 75-yard touchdown run by Miami’s Kalen Ballage on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter was his fault.) We were trying to throw wide receiver screens. The corner just kind of jumped out in front of it. The two bad hiccups were that one and the 75-yard run. Other than that, I was pretty pleased with the day.”