First team won’t get much game action, but Cousins sees importance of preseason start

EAGAN — Over the first three weeks of training camp at TCO Performance Center all eyes have been on the Minnesota Vikings first-team offense.

While there is only so much to be gleaned from practice, there are questions abound. Can Kirk Cousins improve under Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski’s new system? Can the offensive line hold up? What role will Irv Smith play?

We won’t see many plays out of the first unit, but the offense will get their first opportunity to try out the concepts that have been performing admirably on a daily basis in Eagan i.e. zone running schemes, play-actions and the things they have been talking about since OTAs.

“It’s funny because I did play in this system for two years and yet I still feel like you’re dealing with something brand new, for whatever reason,” Cousins said Wednesday. “Maybe just because for five years I did something a little different. I’m interested to see how my instincts are reacting, because with football you really do have to react instinctually. If you drop back and you’re thinking and have to pause a second, you’re getting hit or you’re missing the open guy. You have to have it become instinctual, and nothing exposes you more than a game.”

The biggest hurdle past installing the offense is finding out how it works for each player. Cousins said that process begins on Friday against the Saints.

“We’re really going to focus on and make our identity,” Cousins said. “That comes down to your personnel and what we’re comfortable doing and what we do really well, and I think that’s always a work in progress. You go into a game like New Orleans with a pared down playbook or game plan, but one that is thorough enough to have plenty to run and win. When we come back from that game we go back, because we’re no longer installing, to trying to make corrections from that game and build towards the next game plan.”

Following a season in which the Vikings finished 19th in points and 22nd in Expected Points Added in the passing game (per Pro-Football Reference), they are looking to reach back to some of Cousins’ best years in Washington in order to raise his level of play in 2019. In 2016, Washington had the fifth ranked offense in EPA and the second most yards per game passing.

In the two or three series’ that the offense sees the field, head coach Mike Zimmer is looking for signs of a more economical offense.

“What I want them to do is be efficient,” Zimmer said. “Just go out there and do the things we have been doing and practicing. They may get some different looks defensively. That’s just how it goes. It’s all about executing the techniques that we have been working on and then being able to adjust during the course of the game.”

The Vikings second and third teams will have plenty to study on Friday night as wide receivers battle for remaining jobs behind Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Chad Beebe and the backup quarterback contest gets under way between Sean Mannion, Kyle Sloter and Jake Browning.

There’s also the matter of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski getting back in the saddle as play caller, only this time with a new staff in his head set.

“They have been working at it for a while now anyway, but it will be a process as we start going forward,” Zimmer said. “I think the communications on the head sets is a little different than it is out here.”