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How did pass rush get to Cousins at the worst time for Vikings?

Only one NFL team features two of the league’s top 10 interior pass rushers through three weeks of the season — the L.A. Rams, whom the Vikings are set to play at the Coliseum on Thursday.

So it’s not a great time for the Vikings to be coming off of an abysmal game from their pass protectors and, subsequently, their quarterback. Keep in mind the upcoming matchups against Rams defensive tackles Aaron Donald (15 pressures) and Ndamukong Suh (11 pressures) during this breakdown of the Vikings’ issues in a 27-6 loss to the Bills on Sunday.

“Yeah they’re pretty strong,” right tackle Rashod Hill said. “Give credit where credit is due, they got a good line. We got a good line, too, so we’re going to battle with them. We’re some fighters.”

1. The pressure affected quarterback Kirk Cousins, even when he wasn’t pressured. Cousins’ horrific start started with missed throws and continued with the Vikings offensive line. First, Cousins overthrew an in-and-out corner route to receiver Stefon Diggs. Then Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander walked right guard Mike Remmers into the backfield, forcing Cousins to scramble on the first fumble. Center Brett Jones followed with a poor block on Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei for a no gain by Mike Boone. The ensuing 3rd-and-8 saw Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes twist by left tackle Riley Reiff for the second strip-sack.

Cousins’ three fumbles Sunday give him 34 fumbles since 2015, the most in the NFL tied with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

It continued to spiral out of control as Cousins overthrew receiver Adam Thielen on a 3rd-and-5. “I tried to throw it over the underneath defense,” Cousins said. “I just think I maybe gave them too much credit to how much they were dropping.” One of the most egregious errors came deep into the second quarter, when Cousins had already been sacked three times and trailed 27-0. This time, he had a clean pocket on 3rd-and-7 when he overlooked an open Diggs on the corner route and opted for the underneath to Thielen, who dropped the pass short of the marker.

This isn’t Washington’s offensive line, and Cousins knows full well heading into Thursday night’s game against the Rams with Donald and Suh. Cousins’ 2.36 seconds to throw was his fastest through three games, and quicker than he’d thrown in all but three games for Washington last season, including both games against the Eagles’ rush, according to Pro Football Focus. Cousins’ average time before throwing with the Vikings is now 2.43 seconds, compared to his season averages of 2.52, 2.68 and 2.50 during his three seasons as Washington’s starter.

2. Pass protection leaks sprung from everywhere, but no more than from left tackle Riley Reiff. He was pegged with a league-high 12 pressures allowed, according to Pro Football Focus, as he struggled mightily with Bills edge rusher Jerry Hughes. Remmers also had a forgettable day, surrendering the initial pressure on Cousins’ first fumble, the sack to Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams and he was overpowered by defensive tackle Harrison Phillips on a one-yard loss from Latavius Murray. Running back Mike Boone whiffed on a blitz pickup during the fourth sack of Cousins.

Center Pat Elflein made his debut on played 22 snaps, entering in the second quarter. He was an immediate improvement, even if his biggest blunder was a bad shotgun snap to Cousins’ right leading to the third fumble.

The Bills were aggressive in play and game plan, sending extra rushers on six of Cousins’ 17 dropbacks in the first half. Cousins completed 4 of 6 passes for a total of 14 yards on those plays.

On defense, the Vikings also blitzed six times in the first half and couldn’t get home on any of them. Bills quarterback Josh Allen moved the chains on two of the six plays, had two balls dropped and set up a late field goal on another with an 11-yard gain on 3rd-and-20.

3. Anatomy of a play: Without the NFL’s former elder defender, Terence Newman, roaming the slot, there have been a handful issues involving the Vikings’ slot corners lately. This 2nd-and-11 below, when the Vikings still had a chance, might not be on corner Mike Hughes. But the rookie was involved in a mix-up that led to Bills tight end Jason Croom running wide open for a 26-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

Once Bills running back Marcus Murphy began motioning toward the flat, Hughes said Monday he signaled to linebacker Eric Kendricks that he’d pick up the shallow route by Murphy. Instead, both Kendricks and Hughes jumped on it. Allen kept safety Andrew Sendejo guessing with a post route crossing Sendejo’s face mask.

“Yeah, it was a miscommunication,” Hughes said Monday. “It was a certain check we make when a play like that occurs and I made a check and it was just a miscommunication. Nothing that they did, it was all on us.”

(Credit: NFL Game Pass, CBS)

4. The Vikings didn’t plan well enough for Josh Allen’s mobility. Allen, the 22-year old in his second career NFL start, showed remarkable decision making on when to take off and run. His 10 carries netted six successful plays, starting with his 10-yard touchdown run beating linebacker Anthony Barr to the pylon. His next run didn’t come until an ensuing 3rd-and-9, when he hurdled over Barr (6’5″) for a 10-yard gain. Allen escaped the Vikings’ pass rush a handful of times, including an 8-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-6.

Allen made some plays, but benefited from a Bills game plan that threw in run-pass options and other easy completions. First came the pick play when receiver Kelvin Benjamin shielded Barr to free the running back for a 9-yard swing catch. Then came the tight end slip screen for 13 yards. Throw in the Vikings’ penalties and you had a nightmarish day for the defense.

The Vikings were penalized six times — three on defense, three on special teams — and all six came before the 12-minute mark in the second quarter. Barr’s horse-collar tackle on Allen and nose tackle Linval Joseph’s lowering the helmet on Allen gave the Bills 30 yards on the opening touchdown drive. Joseph’s flag negated what would’ve been a three-and-out to start the game.

5. The Vikings need more from Barr and Kendricks. Barr tackling high on opponents created two penalties, including the aforementioned horse-collar tackle and a 10-yard face mask penalty when tackling Chris Ivory on a six-yard catch. Kendricks might be the most underrated defender for the Vikings, perhaps only behind the guy taking up double teams for him in Linval Joseph. But there were two clear miscommunications with Kendricks and the slot corner: Croom’s 26-yard touchdown and Ivory’s 55-yard catch and run when both Kendricks and cornerback Mackensie Alexander defended the tight end on a broken play, leaving Ivory to run free behind both while Allen scrambled.

Barr’s first half included the two penalties, Allen’s 10-yard touchdown run to the pylon and Allen hurdling him on third down.

Big plays are a big contributor to Vikings' problems this season

Among the many things the Vikings’ 2017 defense did well, the group’s ability to avoid big plays stood out as one of its best attributes.

Equipped with an active pass rush that forced opposing offenses to think quickly and a group of linebackers and defensive backs rarely prone to busted coverages, the Vikings allowed just 41 plays of 20 yards or more in the regular season, the second-fewest in the NFL in 2017.

This season, though the Vikings remain among the top half of the league in terms of giving up big plays, they haven’t been anywhere near as crisp as they were a year ago. And through three games where they’ve allowed 65 points (not counting a blocked punt return for a touchdown), big plays have become an issue. The Vikings have allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more this season, which ties them for 10th-best in the league with seven other teams.

That’s still solid, of course, but there’s a difference between solid and the best-in-class standard the Vikings’ defense has established for itself. On Sunday, the Vikings’ issues on big plays cropped up again in a familiar place: miscommunication in their coverage zones.

The play before Josh Allen’s 26-yard touchdown throw to Jason Croom, CBS color commentator Tony Romo pointed out how the Vikings were packing their safeties near the line of scrimmage, effectively daring Allen to throw downfield. The Bills responded by faking a screen to Marcus Murphy, which drew nickel cornerback Mike Hughes into the flat. Linebacker Eric Kendricks filled in for Hughes late, and Croom slipped by Kendricks downfield, with safety Andrew Sendejo the only deep man in the middle of the field.

Then, on the final play of the first quarter, Allen rolled to his right, and the Bills sent tight end Charles Clay on an underneath route near Kendricks and nickel cornerback Mackensie Alexander. That opened up space in the middle of the field for running back Chris Ivory, who caught an 11-yard throw from Allen at the Bills’ 48 and raced down to the Vikings’ 6.

“Yeah, it was miscommunication,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It has nothing to do with who it was, a tight end, wide receivers, running back, it doesn’t make a difference.”

The Vikings turned Jimmy Graham loose for a pair of big plays a week ago in Green Bay, and were burned for long gains to George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk in Week 1 against San Francisco. With Alexander and Hughes still relatively green at the nickel position, it stands to reason teams will continue to attack the Vikings with underneath throws until they prove they can stop them.

Here are a few other notes and observations from Sunday’s game:

–With the Vikings listing Everson Griffen as inactive for the game because of a knee injury (and absent from the sideline because of what Zimmer called a personal matter), the team leaned on third-year man Stephen Weatherly for most of the day at left defensive end. Weatherly, who played 51 of the Vikings’ 67 defensive snaps, had a solid debut, posting his first NFL sack and registering a tackle for loss, as well as two quarterback hits, among his seven tackles. The Vikings gave 22 snaps to Tashawn Bower. Tom Johnson, in his first game back with the Vikings, played 22 snaps as part of the Vikings’ defensive tackle rotation, while second-year man Jaleel Johnson got 12.

–Four years ago, Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes gave Matt Kalil a difficult day in Buffalo, posting 1 1/2 sacks in the Bills’ one-point win. On Sunday, it was left tackle Riley Reiff who struggled with Hughes’ speed and crisp angles around the corner. Hughes had two quarterback hits and a sack, stripping the ball from Kirk Cousins after beating Reiff around the edge. The Bills ran a stunt with Hughes and linebacker Matt Milano, and Latavius Murray picked up Milano’s blitz, but Hughes got by Reiff and swatted the ball out of Cousins’ hand.

“It’s not fun,” Reiff said. “We’re going to get back to work. I didn’t have a good game at all. I’ll admit it. Get back to work and get it done. L.A is just another game.”

–Cousins also missed Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on early throws that might have altered the flow of the game in the Vikings’ favor. He overshot Diggs on a second down on the Vikings’ first drive, a play before the Bills’ first strip sack, and overthrew an open Thielen on a deep crossing route on a third down as the Vikings tried to dig out of a 17-0 hole.

“I’ll have to go back and watch it, but I do think the first one to Diggs in the sideline was entirely my fault,” Cousins said. “Have to hit that. I felt that was an important throw in the game. Then one to Adam on third down crossing the field. I tried to throw it over the underneath defense and I just think I maybe gave them too much credit to how much they were dropping. I should’ve kept the ball flatter and flattened him out on his route. I was so concerned about the underneath coverage dropping, I tried to put it up and over and it ended up being too far where Adam couldn’t get to it. That was a play you feel like was there. The inaccuracy of the throw led to the drive stalling and that is where it’s frustrating.”

–The Vikings’ average drive started from their own 18 on Sunday, while the Bills started from their own 40. Three of the Bills’ first five drives started in Vikings territory, and another one started from their own 35. All five ended in points. “Obviously, you can’t turn the ball over and give their offense a short field,” Cousins said. “We asked too much of our defense having to be out on the field so much. Very little time of possession for us.” The Vikings held the ball for just 24:15 on Sunday.

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