DETROIT- The Vikings are one game away from the halfway point of the three-year, $84 million contract they gave Kirk Cousins in March 2018 in an effort to add the quarterback they believed could augment a championship-caliber roster.
The efficacy of that contract still is an open question, but performances such as the one Cousins delivered Sunday at Ford Field are precisely what the Vikings had in mind when they opened their checkbook.
Their 42-30 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, in a game where their vaunted defense allowed 433 yards, owed plenty to a masterful offensive performance from the quarterback on a day where he lost Adam Thielen because of a right hamstring injury. The victory — the Vikings’ first of the season in the division — moved them to 5-2 ahead of a Thursday night home game with the 1-6 Redskins.
Cousins — playing in front of family and friends from his hometown of Holland, Mich. — finished with 337 yards passing and four TD throws, riddling the Lions with the play-action passes he used in the Vikings’ victories over the Giants and Eagles. It was the second time in his career he’d thrown four touchdown passes in back-to-back games, and he became the first QB in NFL history to post three consecutive games with at least 300 yards and a passer rating of over 130.
“I just felt like when the play calls were coming, I was in agreement with them so many times, feeling like it would give us a great chance,” Cousins said. “We were running the ball proficiently, and when you do that, I think it helps a play-caller, it helps the quarterback feel like they have the wind at their back a little bit.”
The offensive frustration, to which the Vikings first admitted after a Week 4 loss to the Bears, then portrayed as fiction, seems a distant memory now. There’s been no consternation about balance during the three-game winning streak, not with the Vikings fashioning 1,440 yards of offense while running the ball 53.7% of the time and Cousins feasting off play-action. Asked Sunday if the offense of the past three games is what he envisioned before the season, coach Mike Zimmer simply replied, “Yes.”
The Vikings needed it to prevail in a game that turned into more of a shootout than any they’ve played this year.
Matthew Stafford threw for 364 yards, targeting a different Vikings defensive back on each of his three first-half scores to Marvin Jones and carrying a Lions offense that made little attempt to run the ball after Kerryon Johnson left in the first quarter because of a knee injury.
“I just felt like we weren’t tight enough,” Zimmer said. “We changed coverages all day long; we gave some two-deeps and three-deeps, some two [defensive backs] on one side and two on the other, some man. We played a lot of different things. We missed a couple of the play-actions in the first half, and actually in the second half, I felt pretty good about it. We gave them the one field goal until they get the touchdown at the end, but we had to make some adjustments at halftime because we weren’t covering enough. At the end, the one drive that they got the touchdown on and went for two, that was — we can play a lot better than that.”
On Stafford’s first throw to Jones, which gave the Lions a 7-0 lead, the receiver took a quick throw and spun off a Trae Waynes tackle attempt for a 16-yard score.
Cousins answered later in the first quarter with a five-play drive that ended on a 25-yard strike to Thielen after the Lions bit hard on a play fake to Dalvin Cook. Thielen injured his hamstring while stretching out for the throw in the back of the end zone on what turned out to be his final play of the day. He left the field with the assistance of the team’s athletic training staff, and eventually traded his helmet for a baseball cap after it was determined he wouldn’t return to the field.
The injury put Cousins in a position where he had to work with only three active receivers — Stefon Diggs, Bisi Johnson and Laquon Treadwell — the rest of the day. The Vikings frequently lined up with two tight ends, motioned fullback C.J. Ham out wide and put rookie Irv Smith in the slot in an effort to conjure up a passing game with Thielen out. It was Cousins’ resourcefulness, and the relentless legs of Cook, that helped them survive.
“What an effort,” Thielen said. “It was fun to be part of, just watching a lot of guys being involved, the O-line playing unbelievable, and then Kirk’s performance. That was one of the better performances by a quarterback I’ve seen.”
They converted six of their 10 third-down attempts, including a 14-yard strike from Cousins to Stefon Diggs on a third-and-11 on the opening drive of the second half (after the Lions declined a holding penalty) and, during a fourth-quarter drive, a 23-yard pitch on a third-and-1 after the Lions followed a jet sweep fake to Diggs to the other side of the field.
Two plays later, Cousins hit Kyle Rudolph — who’d caught only nine passes for the season before Sunday — for a 15-yard score with 5:40 to play. The tight end, who’s been asked to take on more of a blocking role in the Vikings offense this year, finished with five catches for 58 yards and the touchdown, his first since catching two in the Vikings’ Week 16 victory in Detroit last year.
Then, after the Lions scored with 3:05 to go, Cousins found Diggs for 66 yards off play-action. Cook — who ended the day with 142 yards on 25 carries — waltzed in two plays later for his second touchdown of the day to seal the victory.
“We wanted to stay aggressive,” Zimmer said. “They were moving the ball really well, and we felt like we had to. It was a play that we had up off of a play-action, and we had a chance to get Diggs in space. There wasn’t much conversation. It was like, ‘We didn’t come here to cower down. We came here to try and hit it.’ ”
Bold strokes such as the throw to Diggs should be the province of a team that’s made the kind of investment in a quarterback the Vikings have in Cousins. As they sail toward Thursday with a chance at six wins in the first half of the season, they seemed to have few regrets.
“He’s playing very free right now. He’s letting the ball loose,” Zimmer said. “Even on some of the incompletions, he’s putting the ball in a good place.”