The biggest goal for the Minnesota Vikings last offseason was to improve the supporting cast around Kirk Cousins. In Sunday’s win over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, the players they added to the mix rose to the challenge in the absence of Adam Thielen.
On the second drive of the game, the Vikings produced a touchdown drive that was capped off by a 25-yard throw from Cousins to Thielen. The Pro Bowl receiver made a grab that only a handful of receivers in the NFL could make but suffered a hamstring injury during the diving catch. For the remainder of the game, Thielen stood on the sideline with a white Vikings cap on. He watched as the Vikings’ other weapons put together over 500 yards of total offense.
“I think it’s a credit to our other players, Diggy stepping up, Bisi Johnson, Irv Smith, Kyle Rudolph did a great job, even Tyler Conklin, we called on him quite a bit in protection,” Cousins said after the win. “When you run the football it also takes the pressure off [after losing Thielen].”
Down by a touchdown to open the second quarter, Cousins hit Stefon Diggs for a 27-yard pass that set the Vikings up in Detroit territory. Rookie Bisi Johnson, who became the No. 2 receiver on Sunday with Thielen, Josh Doctson and Chad Beebe out, drew a pass interference flag and then caught a 1-yard touchdown to knot the game up at 14.
The Vikings’ aim when they drafted Irv Smith in the second round was to create mismatches using him and Kyle Rudolph on the field at the same time. Throughout the victory over the Lions, the Vikings found ways to create open space with play-action throws for the third straight week and Smith played a significant role in that, catching five passes for 60 yards with two of the receptions coming on a key drive in the second half that put the Vikings up 28-21.
The tight end position has historically been difficult for young players to adapt from college to the NFL but Smith has become a weapon in the passing and blocking game early in his first season. Rudolph, who hasn’t been a big part of the offense this year, stepped up with four catches for 43 yards, including several key third down receptions.
“That was important, that will be a big part of our offense,” Cousins said of the tight ends’ big day. “We have three tight ends on the field a lot, we ask them to protect, we ask them to run block, we ask them to run the entire route tree and I can’t say enough about the way all three of them contribute.”
And for the third straight week, the Vikings offensive line and quickly-improving rookie center Garrett Bradbury were as good as they have been at any point during the Mike Zimmer era. Cook ran for 142 yards on 25 carries and the run game came through with the ground game at key times. They helped Dalvin Cook slam into the end zone from the 1-yard line early in the game and then again to put the dagger in Detroit’s back at the end. On a third-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, fullback CJ Ham gained nine yards on third-and-short on a handoff up the middle.
Most importantly the O-line gave Cousins all sorts of time to throw the ball. He was rarely pressured throughout the day, finding big plays down the field and intermediate throws that kept the chains moving. The Vikings had touchdown drives of eight, 15 and 12 plays and a missed field goal drive of 11 plays.
When kept clean, Cousins is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Coming into the matchup with their NFC North foe, he ranked third best in QB rating on throws in which he was not pressured. In the Vikings two losses — at Green Bay and at Chicago — he was under duress for most of the game and it appeared to have a cumulative effect.
On Sunday the confidence in the Vikings offensive line was obvious. Rookie playcaller Kevin Stefanski, who drew up another explosive gameplan, elected to have Cousins drop back and launch the ball to Diggs with just over two minutes remaining and the Vikings up by five points. The O-line gave Cousins a completely clean pocket and his high-arching throw came down in Diggs’ hands to put the game on ice.
“There was no safety help, that corner had to defend Diggs 53 yards across the field and 80 yards deep and we just felt like we don’t want to punt back to them and give them a chance to die or win this game so lets take advantage of the fact that they are going to load the box and call a play that puts Diggsy in a position to get open and he did a great job,” Cousins said.
Diggs finished with seven catches for 142 yards, again showing that he had the right idea when pushing for a bigger role in the scheme.
Sunday’s offense looked like the one the Vikings dreamed about when they signed Cousins. It was common knowledge when they gave him an $84 million contract that he would need weapons around him like he had during his best years in Washington but it wasn’t until this offseason that those weapons — in the form of an improved O-line, an up-and-coming star second-round tight end and a surprisingly good seventh-round receiver — showed up.
Consider how much different things are from 2018 in terms of personnel. Last year at this time teams were double teaming Thielen and Diggs on every key play. Now we are seeing Cousins find other players open in key spots. Now we are seeing his full potential and possibly in turn the full potential of the Vikings under Zimmer.
It would have been surprising at almost any point since Zimmer took the job in 2014 to see his team win a shootout in which his defense did not shine. After the win in Detroit the Vikings proved they can go back and forth with another explosive offense and win.
“I can’t say enough good things about our coaching staff and the gameplans they have put together to put me in a position to be successful,” Cousins said. “When we run the ball effectively it’s taken pressure off me so when we do throw we can get touchdown passes and we’re not just having to drop back and check it down because they’re playing soft coverages. Sometimes you just have those games when plays you didn’t think would be there are there. Other games it might be a struggle and we might have to win 10-9, you have to win with what the game calls for and the last few weeks it has been a little more open it up and let it fire.”
Looking forward they have matchups in which they will be the superior offense (assuming Patrick Mahomes is out) for the next four weeks.
In a tight race for the North, the Vikings now appear to be one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC. That’s quite a turnaround from where they were after Week 4.