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Zulgad: Kirk Cousins finally gets first Monday night win by being put in position to succeed

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Kirk Cousins did his best to act like he had been here before during his postgame press conference Monday night, but the reality is he hadn’t and trying to play Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected wasn’t going to fool anyone considering the display of emotion Cousins had shown late in the fourth quarter as the Vikings closed in on a 19-13 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field.

Cousins was caught by ESPN’s cameras yelling in a moment of jubilation that was understandable for a few reasons. The victory was the Vikings’ third in a row, all against NFC North opponents, and perhaps, most importantly, gave the quarterback his first Monday night victory after nine consecutive defeats. Cousins also hadn’t beaten the Bears since he signed a mega-deal to join the Vikings in 2018 and was 0-2 at Soldier Field.

“(It’s) great to get a win,” Cousins said. “We’ll try and keep building on it now and it will be so important to keep stringing these together, if we can. That’s really what the rest of the season will be all about.”

This was the exact response you would expect from the Corporate Quarterback, even though he likely wanted to pump his fist and tell each and every member of the Twin Cities media what they could do with themselves. Remember, this is the “You Like That?” guy.

Cousins, though, refrained from providing any memorable sound bites. Instead, he allowed his play to do his talking. Cousins put together about as solid of performance as he possibly can completing 25-of-36 passes for 292 yards with two touchdowns and an interception (that was tipped by Adam Thielen). So what has happened to a quarterback who threw 10 interceptions as the Vikings started the season 1-5 and looked finished entering the bye week?

The answer might have more to do with the decisions being made by those who call the shots for Cousins than the quarterback himself. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who took over the play calling when Kevin Stefanski became the coach of the Cleveland Browns following last season, seems to have realized it’s far better to ask Cousins to do what he’s capable of instead of expecting him to perform like a guy who has $96 million coming. While that is the amount Cousins is owed by the Vikings over the next three seasons, relying on him to be the star is a formula for defeat.

What Kubiak did on Monday night was exactly what he did in the Vikings’ victories over Green Bay and Detroit coming out of the bye week. That was to make the opposing defense focus on running back Dalvin Cook and give Cousins an important supporting role on offense. Cousins averaged only 17 passes per game in the wins over the Packers and Lions as Cook destroyed two subpar defenses. He rushed for 163 yards on 30 carries with three touchdowns and caught two passes for 63 yards and another score at Lambeau Field. Cook then went for a career-high 206 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 46 yards against the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Bears, a much better defensive team than the Vikings’ previous two foes, were not going to let Cook beat them. Kubiak and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knew this going in, but still had to be willing to keep the run game as a threat. They succeeded in doing so, despite the fact Cook carried 30 times for only 96 yards, a 3.2-yard average, and his longest run went for 14 yards. (Cook’s 36-yard run in the third quarter was wiped out by a holding penalty on Kyle Rudolph.) He also caught four passes for 16 yards, meaning he had a season-high 34 touches.

Cook’s workload didn’t result in any big plays, but it relieved the pressure on Cousins.

The Bears entered Monday with the NFL’s top-ranked third-down defense, but Cousins completed 10-of-11 passes for 149 yards in those situations. The Vikings trailed by three points in the third quarter and were facing a third-and-11 from their own 14-yard line. Cousins found Justin Jefferson deep down the middle on a play that went for 54 yards.

Dan Bailey ended the drive with a 43-yard field goal to tie the score. Cousins also completed both of his touchdown passes to Thielen on third down, the first being a 17-yard throw on which Thielen made a great one-handed catch in the first quarter and the second being a 6-yard toss in the fourth quarter that provided the winning points.

But it was the Cousins-Jefferson combination that impressed the most. Jefferson, the outstanding rookie wide receiver, caught eight passes for 135 yards on 10 targets, including five passes for 102 yards on third down. Cousins’ success helped the Vikings go 8-of-15 on third down, while the Bears’ atrocious offense was 2-for-11.

“I thought he played really fast, which is important for him,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Cousins. “He was extremely accurate. He got the ball in the right places all night. I just felt like he did a really good job of handling what the defense was giving us.”

Cousins now has a victory on Monday night and the Vikings have a chance to continue their winning streak with a three-game homestand upcoming against Dallas, Carolina and Jacksonville. Those defenses, like the Bears, are certain to focus on stopping Cook and then worry about Cousins. But as Chicago learned, even if you stop Cook, the Vikings offense has enough weapons to beat you.

The important thing is that those weapons are used correctly. On Monday night, Kubiak succeeded in making sure that was the case.