EAGAN — On the day that the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins, one of the first things Mike Zimmer said he liked about the veteran quarterback was his exceptional ability on play-action and bootleg throws.
While many quarterbacks have seen their play-action numbers vary throughout their careers, Cousins has been remarkably consistent. This year is no different. Cousins ranks as the NFL’s third best play-action quarterback in passer rating.
Here’s how he’s performed since becoming a full-time starter in 2015:
2015 – 129.1 (1st)
2016 – 100.8 (14th)
2017 – 118.7 (2nd)
2018 – 116.1 (4th)
2019 – 131.2 (3rd)
Last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, play caller Kevin Stefanski repeatedly dialed up play-action, drawing in the Eagles defense and allowing Cousins to make plays down the field. Only a handful of Cousins’ throws were on straight drop backs.
On Wednesday, the Vikings’ quarterback explained that the Stefanski-Kubiak offense has a myriad of different ways it can use play-fakes, all of which have the goal of manipulating the defense.
“I think that it’s just having a variety of different fakes,” Cousins said. “We have runs set up like that too where we can run draw and hand it off. We hit one on a safety blitz last week. You just want to have all your plays look the same and marry together. So when you have a run, you want to complement it with pass and vice versa. I think it’s just trying to make them all marry together. A hard play action fake is also really good. We have them organized all differently, so like the draw fake into a pass we have in a different column than the true handoff fake into a pass which we have into a different column than the true bootleg. I don’t know when people break them down if they call that all play action, but to me those are all different and we look at them as different plays with different elements.”
— Bruce Gradkowski (@bgradkowski5) October 16, 2019
While Cousins was excellent in terms of passer rating last year with play-action, he ranked 28th in terms of percentage of drop backs that included play fakes at 20.8%. This year that number has increased greatly to 32.4%, which ranks only behind Patrick Mahomes, Marcus Mariota and Jimmy Garoppolo (per Pro Football Focus).
Cousins still has solid numbers with straight drop backs, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and registering a 97.0 quarterback rating. But his YPA increases to 11.0 with play-action thanks to several explosive plays on downfield passes.
Part of the reason for the increase in production, Cousins said, is that he has had more clean pockets when the Vikings used play-actions, especially when they are bootlegs off zone run looks.
“It gives you a chance to move pocket so that the pass rush can’t just pin their ears back and rush to a spot in between the line,” Cousins said. “They have to understand that you can throw from different places on the field. And it gives different routes for receivers for DBs to have to defend, knowing that, hey, he can take me all the way across the field here, if they run a bootleg, and then it gives you a chance for some explosives, as you see, you have some ability to go down the field more. So I think all those pieces combine to give you a lot of variables.”
While the numbers point toward the Vikings continuing to use play-action at a high rate, Cousins pointed out that some teams have a tendency to attack those types of plays — one example being the Green Bay Packers in Week 2, who sent rushers up field toward the quarterback rather than chasing after running back Dalvin Cook.
“We have to be very aware of a defense that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to stop that.’ And then say, ‘Hey, if they’re going to take away that, then what are our answers and response?’” Cousins said.