EAGAN — Derek Zoolander would be very jealous of Kirk Cousins.
Not only can the Minnesota Vikings quarterback turn left but he’s consistently shown the ability to make big-time throws while executing designed rollouts to his left and that particular part of Cousins’ repertoire has allowed Kevin Stefanski to use play-action designs that are extremely difficult for opponents to cover. In fact, Cousins ranks No. 1 in the NFL in yards per attempt when rolling to his left, per PFF.
The best example was Sunday’s highlight-reel touchdown pass from Cousins to receiver Adam Thielen.
Here’s a video look at the play with details of the design and throw:
The Vikings lined up in a bunch formation and sent Thielen in motion. Darius Slay (#23) followed him, indicating man coverage. At that point, Cousins would have a good sense that the play design was going to put the single deep safety in a bind, having to decide whether to cover Stefon Diggs or drop deeper to double Thielen.
Up front the Vikings do a terrific job of selling the run — so much to the point that Alexander Mattison gets drilled by the defensive tackle, who thought the rookie running back had the ball. Left guard Pat Elflein pulls, drawing the linebacker completely out of the play. Fullback CJ Ham begins to block before dropping out into the flat.
The result is Cousins having 10 yards of space in front and behind him as he rolls out. Stefanski has consistently used rollouts to create clean pockets knowing that Cousins has consistently been a top rated QB when he has time to throw.
Once Cousins is out in space, he reads the safety. When the safety steps up to double Diggs, he flips his hips, gets both feet on the ground and fires a big-time throw to the back of the end zone.
Cousins explained how everything had to work in unison in order to hit on the 25-yard touchdown pass.
“It’s never any one thing, it’s complex,” Cousins said. “You need to have great play calls, have great players. Adam being able to go get that ball, keep his feet in bounds, that’s a big part of the play. I can’t make that throw if I don’t have the time to set up. You need people doing their job and then a system that’s giving you a chance to do your job. And when the run game works it also helps because they have to honor that so they have to chase after the run and get a chance to boot out the back door. All that comes together but getting outside the pocket and throwing the ball is kind of what you’ve done since first grade so at that point you’re just operating off instincts and letting it come naturally.”
Without the QB’s ability to roll to his left and make quality throws on the run, it would limit one of the fundamental elements of a Gary Kubiak offense. Instead the Vikings are using all types of different looks to achieve the same concept of a bootleg combined with flooding one side of the field.
Here are several other examples of the Vikings executing a similar concept with a few different wrinkles.
In the first clip, a throw to tight end Irv Smith, the Vikings line up two tight ends and the fullback on the same side and then roll Cousins out to the weak side, bringing all of the defense’s attention toward Dalvin Cook. Elflein also pulls to gain the focus on the linebackers. Both tight ends then come across the field at different levels. Cousins adjusts his arm angle to hit the intermediate pass to Smith, who did a good job of running underneath the linebacker. The crossing routes were opened up by a go route on the weak side by Bisi Johnson.
The Vikings’ biggest play of the day against New York came on a similar concept, this time with Stefon Diggs learning out space for Thielen to run underneath and gain huge yards after catch. On this version, the O-line zone blocks left and tight end Kyle Rudolph looks like he’s running a wham block across the formation but instead he’s the flat receiver. You can see in Clip 2 the defense scrambling to adjust after Rudolph goes in motion putting the FB and TE on the same side. This time Cousins has all day to spin around and make an easy throw.
The final clip, another touchdown to Thielen, features the Vikings giving the look of a flood but Thielen runs what appears to be a Dino route and takes advantage of the deep safety focusing on Diggs’ deep crosser. The play-fake gives Cousins time to make a perfect throw just before a pass rusher catches up with him.
During the offseason the Vikings made it clear that they wanted to play to Cousins’ strengths and this version of the play-action bootlegs is a perfect example. They have used a number of different play-action and run looks leaving Cousins time to throw and open receivers. But it wouldn’t work if he did not have the capability to make highly accurate passes downfield.
“The good ones can go right and left on all of those,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.