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Batted-down passes give Vikings, Cousins cause for concern

Though he still completed 70.5 percent of his passes on Sunday, Kirk Cousins’ day against the Cardinals — during which he went 24 of 34 for 233 yards, a touchdown and an interception — was his second-worst of the season from both a passer rating and completion percentage standpoint.

On Sunday, more often than not, there was an odd culprit: a Cardinals defensive front that found some success batting down Cousins’ pass attempts.

The Cardinals batted seven of Cousins’ passes at the line of scrimmage on Sunday, with six of them falling incomplete and the seventh falling to the quarterback, who lost two yards after catching the deflection. The batted passes accounted for six of Cousins’ 10 incompletions on Sunday, with a spike also in the tally. In other words, when Cousins got his passes beyond the line of scrimmage, he completed 24 of his 27 attempts, with one interception and two incomplete passes.

His impressive accuracy the rest of the day made the batted passes even more noteworthy, especially given the fact Cousins was tied for third in the league before Sunday with six batted passes, according to Pro Football Focus. He had seven throws batted down during his first year as a starter in 2015, and 10 in 2016. Last year, Cousins’ 11 batted passes tied him for fifth in the NFL; he’s already eclipsed that mark in 2018.

So what went into the batted passes on Sunday?

“One was a keeper, so I attribute it to an unblocked end that we’re trying to influence with the run fake, he doesn’t buy it and then I’ve got to touch it up and over,” Cousins said. “If I touch it too much the safety drives down and blows up C.J. [Ham], so I was just trying to get it up and over quick. I made that throw several times this season, but that one he got. Other ones were quick game and I felt like a back’s trying to cut the end and get hands down, but then the end could get back up and he got that one. The last one was regular protection. I don’t even know who batted it. It just is what it is, but I thought it was more a credit the Cardinals defense and their scheme and the way they played and they were ready to bat balls down then it was anything we were doing.”

The batted passes are worth keeping an eye on going forward, especially given when some of them occurred. Benson Mayowa’s two batted throws stalled the Vikings’ first drive of the game, and Chandler Jones batted a pass on a 3rd-and-5 in the third quarter.

“I know a couple of them were on naked [bootleg]s where you’re not blocking the guy,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “The thing is on nakeds, if you’re not running the ball a little bit the other way then they never close with the run. They just run up the field and go after the quarterback, and that’s happened many times this year really. That’s something we’re going to have to fix and correct.”

Here are some other notes and observations from the Vikings’ 27-17 win on Sunday:

–In addition to holding the Cardinals without a third-down conversion, the Vikings started to resemble their 2017 defensive performance in the ways they were able to limit big plays. They allowed only three plays of 20 yards or more on Sunday, after giving up seven against the Rams and six against the Eagles. Josh Rosen hit Ricky Seals-Jones for 40 yards on an underthrown ball, allowing the tight end to adjust while Harrison Smith had his back to the ball, and hit Christian Kirk for 35 yards on a crossing route that appeared to target a space in the Vikings’ coverage zones, but Rosen had little success throwing downfield later in the game,

“We just have to go out and play and do our job,” Zimmer said. “We gave them one big play today, but the thing we’ve done better the last couple weeks is we’ve eliminated these big plays and that’s been a big point of emphasis for us defensively.”

–Anthony Barr’s performance on Sunday saw the linebacker at perhaps his most active this season. He batted down a Rosen pass after racing untouched to the quarterback off a blitz, and on the Cardinals’ next offensive play, he stripped David Johnson, forcing his first fumble of the season. “We just got to continue to be aggressive, continue to trust the system, to trust each other, continue having fun with this,” Barr said.. “That’s the biggest thing; you saw us out there having fun today and playing with energy. When we do that, we have lots of success.”

–If Mike Hughes is indeed out for the season with a torn ACL, as the Vikings feared after Sunday’s game, they’ll have to improvise in the secondary, possibly by employing some of their safety depth as they did Sunday. George Iloka started next to Harrison Smith with Andrew Sendejo out because of a groin injury, but Jayron Kearse got in for five snaps as part of the Vikings’ big nickel package, and Anthony Harris saw 15 snaps on defense, intercepting Rosen late in the third quarter.

“The play that Anthony Harris made was a great play,” Zimmer said. “We were in the right defense and they ran the right play but he made a great play on the ball.”

The Vikings used Mackensie Alexander for 33 of their 58 defensive snaps, and the nickel corner registered a sack off a blitz and an end zone pass breakup on Larry Fitzgerald. The Vikings will have to lean heavily on the third-year corner going forward, and could work in players like Iloka, Kearse and Harris once Sendejo returns.

–After going 3-for-4 for 117 yards on passes of 20 yards or more against the Eagles, Cousins stuck to a diet of shorter throws on Sunday. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins’ longest throw of the day covered 16 air yards, and he attempted only five of 10 yards or more. The Cardinals had Patrick Peterson shadowing Stefon Diggs for parts of the game, and the receiver caught only three passes for 33 yards. Cousins reacted by targeting Adam Thielen on 15 of his 33 passes (excluding his one spike). No other Vikings receiver had more than four targets on Sunday.

Change of plans: Dalvin Cook won't play vs. Cardinals

Running back Dalvin Cook was expected to play Sunday against the Cardinals, but after a pregame workout at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings decided to rest their star running back.

Cook is inactive, meaning running back Latavius Murray will get his third start of the season in Cook’s place.

Two young tackles will step into more prominent roles to protect the edges for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Rashod Hill, the third-year tackle, will make his second NFL start on the left side as Riley Reiff is ruled out due to a lingering foot injury. Rookie Brian O’Neill, the second-round pick, will make his first NFL start at right tackle.

Also making his first start this season is safety George Iloka, who said Friday he’s ready to return to the lineup after playing mostly special teams in the first five games. Starter Andrew Sendejo has been ruled out due to a groin injury.

Rookie Jalyn Holmes is expected to again contribute at defensive end with only starters Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly available in front of him.

Vikings’ inactives: Cook (hamstring), Reiff (foot), Sendejo (groin), Griffen (not injury related), Bower (ankle), QB Kyle Sloter and LB Devante Downs.

Meanwhile, three former Vikings are inactive for the Cardinals between quarterback Sam Bradford, receiver Kendall Wright and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo.

Cardinals’ inactives: Bradford, Wright, Odenigbo, WR Trent Sherfield, RB T.J. Logan, OL Blaine Clausell and OL Korey Cunningham.

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