During Kirk Cousins’ first half-season in Minnesota under a three-year, $84 million contract, he’s had plenty of opportunities to disprove the commonly held belief that he struggles under pressure.
And so far this season — though the Vikings began the season without center Pat Elflein and left tackle Riley Reiff has missed three games because of a foot injury — Cousins has posted the best numbers of his career with defenders bearing down on him.
Cousins, who’s dropped back more frequently than any quarterback in the NFL, has also been pressured on more of those dropbacks than anyone in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been under pressure on 155 of his 379 dropbacks, throwing 126 passes — or 25 more than the next closest QB — while under pressure.
Only Houston’s DeShaun Watson (at 45.1 percent) has been pressured on a greater percentage of his dropbacks than Cousins (40.9).
And yet, Cousins has found ways to produce, completing more passes (68.3 percent) and throwing a higher percentage of his passes on target (78.4 percent) while under pressure than any QB in the NFL. His passer rating of 91.1 when pressured is the second highest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
“It’s not ideal,” Cousins said. “I think, first and foremost, [you have to] keep your eyes downfield and be able to feel the rush, but not see it. It’s important to throw with anticipation. It’s important to have as good a vision as you possibly can have, or understanding of the coverage, to know what your issues are, so if you do have to throw early, you’re not throwing into trouble.”
Cousins has thrown three of his four interceptions this season while under duress, including the one the Saints’ P.J. Williams returned for a touchdown on Sunday night (though wide receiver Stefon Diggs attributed that interception to his stopping his route when Cousins threw to the spot where he expected Diggs to be).
Quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes have the same number of interceptions under pressure, though, despite having thrown 57 and 33 fewer passes than Cousins while being pressured, according to PFF.
“You certainly have to be smart about when you take your shots and when you just get rid of the ball, get out of bounds or throw it at someone’s feet to avoid a critical error or a turnover,” Cousins said. “And then play-calling’s very important, too — to not put players in a tougher position than they need to be in, and to try to have a scheme that allows you not to worry about those protection issues.”
Cousins’ passer rating under pressure was only 72.3 in 2015, his first year as a starter, before he posted a 72.9 rating in 2016 and a 66.3 rating last season, while playing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line in Washington.
He’s enjoyed the benefit of working with Adam Thielen and Diggs this season, but it’s also possible his experience is helping him manage situations more effectively.
“I think the red jersey in practice protects you, and that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t give you a good simulation of a real NFL pocket,” he said. “The only way to get that experience is to play, and get hit, and feel that live rush, and that takes time. Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of games logged in this league, which has enabled me to develop that feel over time.”
He hasn’t been perfect — and he’d undoubtedly prefer to spend less time working under duress than he has this season — but Cousins, so far, has played well enough to produce with things breaking down in front of him.
“It’ll be something I’m always working on,” he said. “No matter how many games I’ve played, it’s still going to be something I have to pay attention to every week to see how I’m doing in that area.”