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Zulgad: Kirk’s masterpiece: Cousins delivers when the Vikings, Zimmer need him most

Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) leaves the field following an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Minneapolis, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. The Vikings defeated the Seahawks 30-17. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

The Vikings were playing without star running back Dalvin Cook, their once-mighty defense was a sieve against the run and the pass and it looked as if Mike Zimmer might spend the upcoming week answering questions about his job security. In other words, things could not have been going worse for the Vikings as they trailed the Seattle Seahawks by 10 points in the second quarter Sunday before a disgruntled crowd at the home opener in U.S. Bank Stadium.

So who was going to rescue the Vikings from this mess? Why Kirk Cousins, of course. The quarterback, who has been more of a lightning rod than anything in his three-plus seasons in Minnesota, continued his fantastic start by having one of the best overall games of his career and, in doing so, led the Vikings to a 30-17 victory to save Zimmer from an 0-3 start.

Cousins’ brilliant performance — 30-of-38 for 323 yards with three touchdowns and a 128.4 passer rating — removed Zimmer from the hot seat (for now) and put the Vikings in position to even their record at 2-2 next week when they face Cleveland and former offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski at U.S. Bank Stadium.

That’s the same Stefanski whom many wanted to replace Zimmer after the 2019 season. The Vikings, however, beat the Saints in a playoff game, and Stefanski ended up being named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Browns to their first playoff victory in 25 years.

There was a time when a cynic might have concluded the pressure of playing against a former coach would be too much for Cousins. But this version of Cousins looks different and has since the opening day of the season.

Cousins jokingly has been referred to as Kirk-tober during his time in Minnesota because he has rebounded after subpar starts to have very good Octobers, but Cousins has been sharp since the Vikings’ season-opening loss at Cincinnati. He had an excellent game in Week 2 at Arizona and then was downright brilliant on Sunday. Even when Cousins lost the ball in the third quarter, he was able to recover and the drive ended with Greg Joseph making a 43-yard field goal that were part of the 23 unanswered points the Vikings scored.

Cousins is playing at an MVP level right now and he’s earning every bit of his $31 million salary. The storyline in training camp was Cousins’ refusal to be vaccinated — something that clearly annoyed Zimmer — but all will be forgiven as long as Cousins stays healthy and is able to perform like he has in 12-plus quarters this season.

Cousins’ play was especially important Sunday because a sprained ankle sidelined Cook and Zimmer’s defense had an atrocious start. The Seahawks had 90 yards rushing at halftime and Russell Wilson had passed for 218 yards and a touchdown. Nonetheless, the Vikings held a 21-17 lead thanks to Cousins’ 15-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen and his 3-yard scoring pass to Justin Jefferson.

A key turning point came in the second quarter with Seattle up 17-7 when Cousins was sacked for a 6-yard loss on third-and-3 from the Vikings’ 22-yard line. A defensive holding call on Seattle free safety Ugo Amadi gave the Vikings a first down and seven plays later Thielen’s touchdown made it a three-point game. Cousins was 4-for-5 for 71 yards after the holding call on the Seahawks and his touchdown pass came on third-and-13 from the Seattle 15.

That was one of nine of the 14 third-down situations on which the Vikings converted. The most impressive one involving Cousins came in the fourth quarter when he delivered a strike to K.J. Osborn for a 15-yard gain on third-and-5, despite taking a direct hit from linebacker Cody Barton on a blitz. It was the latest example of how quickly Cousins is delivering the ball this season after having a tendency to hold onto it far too long in the past.

“I told the team, I thought that’s the best offensive performance that I’ve seen in the eight years that I’ve been here,” Zimmer said. “Kirk played outstanding.”

Cousins, who was making his 50th start for the Vikings, was his team’s most impressive player on offense, but he wasn’t the only one who contributed. Backup running back Alexander Mattison started in place of Cook and rushed for 112 yards on 26 carries. He also caught six passes for 59 yards. Jefferson had nine receptions for 118 yards and a score, and tight end Tyler Conklin had seven catches for 70 yards.

First-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who had been Cousins’ position coach before replacing his father, Gary, as coordinator this season, also called his best game so far. But Cousins gets the most credit because he executed it so well. The Vikings came away with points on six of their eight drives and dominated the time of possession in the second half. This helped the Vikings defense to shut out Seattle in the second half.

“I think he’s playing outstanding,” Zimmer said of Cousins. “But not only that, he’s playing with a lot of confidence. … I really appreciate the leadership that he’s been doing lately. It’s been so much better, something he wanted to work on this offseason. He’s done a great job with that. He’s very confident where he’s throwing the football. He’s very confident in his receivers.”

And Zimmer, who hasn’t always been very confident in Cousins, now has a quarterback who is lifting his defense instead of vice versa. It might be an odd feeling for Zimmer, but with his team desperate for a win, he was more than happy to give Cousins the credit he deserved.