NEW ORLEANS — At one of his podium sessions last offseason, Kirk Cousins expressed regret for not finding Kyle Rudolph in the red zone more often in 2018.
He named it one of his goals for the 2019 season. But throughout the season, Cousins was spotty with targets to Rudolph, finishing the year with only 46 throws toward the veteran tight end all season.
But Cousins picked the exact right time to believe that the 6-foot-6 former Pro Bowler would reach up and make a big-time play.
The Vikings got the exact look they wanted on third-and-goal with three receivers to Cousins’s right and Rudolph alone on the left with the cornerback. You could have seen the play coming from space because of the incredible mismatch in size. Rudolph reached up over PJ Williams on the fade pass and nabbed the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
“I played a lot of basketball in my life,” Rudolph said after the second playoff victory of his career. “And they brought all-out pressure and Kirk gave me a chance and I just go up and get the rebound. Go up and get it and make a play to help our team win.’’
Kyle Rudolph – Minnesota Vikings (1)
4-yard TD pass (K. Cousins)
[10:40-OT] MIN 26 | NO 20pic.twitter.com/WYkskbDRi3
— NFL Touchdowns (@NFLTDVideos) January 5, 2020
There was some level of controversy after Rudolph’s walk-off reception as fans expected him to be called for a push-off on the smaller defender. President of officiating Al Riveron said that there was no reason to consider overturning the play.
“We looked at all angles that FOX afforded us…there was contact by both players but none of that contact rises to the level of a foul,” Riveron said.
Traslation: They weren’t going to penalize the Vikings’ tight end for being a mismatch for Williams.
“I thought all touchdowns were supposed to be reviewed, I don’t know, it’s above my head,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis told reporters “I can’t do anything about it. It was one-on-one, the tight end won, you’ve got to give him credit. Good throw and catch.”
Despite the lack of targets this season, Rudolph was remarkably efficient when targeted. Cousins managed an incredible 139.5 quarterback rating when targeting Rudolph and completed 85% of passes his way.
Rudolph caught remarkably difficult touchdowns in other key games this year, including one-handed receptions in the back of the end zone against the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks. In total 24 of his 39 catches this year turned into first downs and six went for touchdowns.
But he was largely asked to be patient this year, especially toward the beginning and end of the year. Over the final six games of the season, Rudolph only had 10 receptions and one touchdown. Rudolph was required to block more than he’s ever blocked before and accepted the challenge.
Cousins picked the right time to find him on Sunday with seven targets and made four catches against the Saints, the most impressive of which was the game winner.
“He’s awful good in the red zone and made a great catch,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He has always been a great team player and for him to get the winning catch was big.”
After the game Rudolph was quick to point out that Cousins’s game-winning drive didn’t only have one pretty fade pass, it had three remarkable throws. The first of which was a slant route to Stefon Diggs on third-and-8 and then he dropped a dime over the shoulder of Adam Thielen to put the Vikings in position to defeat the Saints and move on in the playoffs.
“He got the game ball in the locker room,” Rudolph said. “He deserves it. All we’ve heard this is Kirk Cousins this, Kirk Cousins that. Playoff games, big games on the road, so much nonsense. It takes 10 other guys on offense and I said that all year long, and today 10 other guys stepped huge to allow Kirk to go out there and play well.’’
The Vikings now head to San Francisco to face off with the 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs. You can bet that if Cousins is given the chance, he’ll throw it up for grabs again in the red zone to his basketball-playing tight end.
“I’m thrilled we won a playoff game and I just do my part,” Cousins said. “We won the game today because we played great defense, got a turnover, had good special teams, great play-calling and a great gameplan. We protected and ran the football…that’s a whole lot of reasons we won that game.”