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Cousins' issues, Cook's path and a deeper look at that nullified TD

Mike Zimmer summed up Kirk Cousins’ Sunday during a 21-16 loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field succinctly, because that conversation could’ve lasted all afternoon.

“He can do better,” Zimmer said Monday.

It was baffling. Not only because Cousins is currently the third-most accurate NFL passer of all time at a career 66.3% completion rate, but because a staple of his game for years — play-action — was a fruitless endeavor against the Packers. Cousins’ poor decisions, which are open for debate as to how characteristic they are, and inaccuracy, which is uncharacteristic, were prevalent regardless.

Cousins lamented his bad decisions and misfires in the game, during which the Vikings defense continually gave him chances. The Packers went 10 drives without traveling farther than 22 yards, of course only after taking a 21-0 lead with two big drives out of the gate and a Cousins fumble.

As our Ben Goessling detailed, pressure factored in Cousins’ day against a revamped Packers defense, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. There were more than a handful of chances for Cousins to steal a win.

1. A near career-worst 43.8% completed offers plenty of blame to go around, but Cousins said it best when pointing to his miss in the fourth quarter. Trailing 21-16, the Vikings defense just forced the fifth of eight JK Scott punts. A 13-yard catch and run by Dalvin Cook, who slipped two tacklers, helped the offense crawl back from a Garrett Bradbury hold for a third-and-7 shot.

Up-tempo pacing made an appearance, and the Vikings went back to it on this play. It’d worked on third and 13 earlier in the game, when receiver Stefon Diggs sprinted past the secondary for a 45-yard touchdown, seemingly catching the Packers flat footed by hurrying up to the line and snapping the ball with 12 seconds left on the play clock.

They again hurried up to the line on this third and 7, snapping the ball with 15 seconds left on the play clock. Cousins has to cringe after not only seeing the misfire again Monday in the Vikings’ film review, but also by spoiling the clean pocket.

After another Packers punt and a flurry of runs, Cousins’ best chance came at Green Bay’s 8-yard line. This play-action rollout was designed to target receiver Adam Thielen, according to coordinator Kevin Stefanski, but he’s covered tightly by Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander.

“We’re trying to keep them off balance, and also you’re thinking about players,” Stefanski said Monday on KFAN. “Obviously you can think about Dalvin and Alexander and how they were running the ball, but also that play is designed for Adam Thielen and Adam had played pretty well in that ball game.”

Two Packers defenders, defensive end Dean Lowry (#94) and cornerback Jaire Alexander (#23), don’t bite on the play fake. Lowry disrupts Cousins’ rollout while Alexander takes away his first read.

This results in Cousins drifting backward and throwing off his back foot to Diggs, who signaled for the ball in the back of the end zone. A great play by Packers cornerback Kevin King results in the pick. Simply a bad decision by Cousins.

2. Where’s the play-action passing success? Only the Broncos’ Joe Flacco and Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky have fewer play-action yards than Cousins (63) through two games.  

Play-action passing is a strength of Cousins’ game and one the Vikings hoped to accentuate with a Gary Kubiak-inspired offensive system. That has yet to happen. It’s a small sample size (Cousins’ 14 play-action throws rank 20th in the league), but his NFL-low 32.7 passer rating in those spots, according to Pro Football Focus, needs to be fixed in order for the Vikings offense to flourish.

The Packers defense mixed up some fronts and coverages that caught the Vikings offense off guard, a couple players said after the game. One has to wonder if Lowry’s play against play-action bootlegs was part of that.

Lowry blew up two play-action bootlegs in the third quarter, seemingly abstaining from run support to cut off Cousins. That includes this 1st and 10 below. Watch Lowry (#94) forgo any defense of a Cook cutback lane to attack Cousins.

These plays are part of the reason Cousins threw 4 of 9 for 23 yards and an interception off play action.

3. Dalvin Cook outran, overpowered and slipped by would-be tacklers while amassing 191 yards from scrimmage. The NFL’s leading rusher is off to an impeccable start wasted only by the passing game’s inefficiency on Sunday.

Cook shed seven tackles in Green Bay, which led all NFL running backs in Week 2, passing the test against this reloaded Packers defense with flying colors.

Maybe he should buy fullback C.J. Ham a steak dinner. Ham was a lead blocker on 11 of Cook’s 20 carries against the Packers, and saw Cook run for 126 yards on those handoffs.

That obviously includes the 75-yard touchdown run, in which struggling rookie center Garrett Bradbury threw a key block.

It’s unclear if replacement left guard Dakota Dozier (#78) plays this fullback lead zone correctly, but the result is dynamite. Two keys here: in the video below, watch Dozier go against the flow when Packers DE Fadol Brown (#98) jumps inside at the snap. This forces Bradbury (#56) to work around Dozier to get to his defender, Packers NT Tyler Lancaster (#95); Bradbury does a nice job letting Lancaster’s own momentum carry him out of the play, setting up a cutback lane for Cook.

Also notice Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (#23), who is so intently focused on receiver Adam Thielen that he’s carried out of the play. Green Bay’s defense seemed to prioritize receiver matchups over its DBs playing the run, like they didn’t here. Perhaps that helps explain Cousins’ ineffective play-action outing.

Right guard Josh Kline (#64) also does a great job getting to linebacker Blake Martinez (#50), letting Cook set up the block and find daylight.

4. A “bad call”? That’s what Zimmer claimed on the offensive pass interference on Cook, which negated a touchdown throw to Diggs that could’ve cut the deficit to 21-14 in the third quarter.

Does this kind of play the Vikings ran happen often in the NFL? Yeah. So coaches are probably telling Cook to run this interference route with a little less contact next time. “Picks” or “rub routes” are a dime a dozen in the NFL, and this doesn’t often — and didn’t on Sunday — get called in real time. But “unintended consequences,” as Zimmer said, of the new interference replay rules allow for officials to retroactively call this penalty on scoring plays.

Looking at how the play is designed, it’s clearly to get Diggs open underneath. Diggs (#14) takes a quick stutter step, giving his teammates on the other side a second head start to run interference with Cook and Rudolph (#82) supposed to clear out the crowd near the goal line.

The issue, as officials claimed, was the contact Cook made with a defensive back beyond the 1-yard boundary, in which its permissible for receivers.

5. That route Davante Adams used to breeze past Xavier Rhodes for a 39-yard gain on the first play? The Packers went back to it with seconds left in the third quarter, trying to pad a 21-16 lead.

Here’s the first play, in which Adams appears to run a deep crossing route but pivots to a corner about 10 yards downfield. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (#29) appears to be at fault for not sticking with Adams underneath.

Upon being asked about that coverage bust, a Vikings defensive back quickly retorted they sniffed out the same Adams route later in the game.

This 1st and 10 play below sure looks like it. Similar formation with Adams (#17), at bottom of screen, again aligning on the boundary side (or shorter side) of the field. Adams starts running a deep crosser (to longer side) before pivoting to the corner. Rhodes is on top of it, forcing a Rodgers throwaway.

Pressure was a constant for Cousins in Vikings' loss to Packers

Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at three players who stood out, three concerns for the team, three trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:

Though the spotlight, in the wake of the Vikings’ 21-16 loss to the Packers on Sunday, will be focused on Kirk Cousins following his three-turnover performance at Lambeau Field, the Vikings’ quarterback was again asked to operate under pressure that at least affected him on two of the turnovers.

According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was pressured on a whopping 65.7 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday, after being pressured on 45.5 percent of them against the Falcons in Week 1. He lost the ball on the first-quarter strip sack pictured above, and while his fourth-quarter interception in the end zone was a bad decision by Cousins’ own admission, he had Dean Lowry bearing down on him as he threw the back-footed pass.

Cousins had six throwaways on Sunday, and was hit six times in the game. His first interception, on a ball intended for Diggs and thrown into coverage over the middle of the field, came when Cousins had a clean pocket, but the Packers’ pressure was almost constant on Sunday, and it came from multiple angles: defensive tackle Kenny Clark had seven pressures, while Lowry had six, Za’Darius Smith had five and Preston Smith and Kyler Fackrell had four each.

Garrett Bradbury struggled again in pass protection, and Dakota Dozier had a rough afternoon in place of the injured Pat Elflein; he gave up five pressures, including when Cousins was forced to scramble for six yards in the fourth quarter after Dozier appeared to turn the wrong way. But as the Vikings rallied on Sunday, they also maintained enough balance that the Packers couldn’t just come after Cousins without regard for the run. That’s the part that might be the most concerning for the Vikings going forward; even as they were able to run the ball the way they wanted on Sunday, their passing game didn’t reap many of the benefits.

Here are two other areas of concern for the Vikings after their loss on Sunday:

The run defense: As much as the Vikings were able to sustain their running game even after falling behind 21-0, they allowed a Packers offense that came into the season preaching balance to control the clock with its own running game. Green Bay held the ball for 34:06, and even after Cousins’ fourth-quarter interception, the Packers took away the Vikings’ final chance to win the game by running 2:58 off the clock and forcing them to burn through their timeouts. The key run on Green Bay’s final drive came on a 2nd-and-8, when Aaron Jones cut back to his left after the Vikings’ linebackers followed the Packers’ zone run hard to the right. Green Bay finished the day with 144 yards on 33 carries, the most it has run for against the Vikings since Nov. 23, 2014.

Penalties: Yes, the NFL’s new pass interference review process — through which the league office in New York nullified a Vikings touchdown by flagging Dalvin Cook for a downfield block — is going to be a popular gripe today. It cost the Vikings a touchdown on Sunday, and the emphasis on offensive pass interference (which was called four times in all on Sunday) had Stefon Diggs asking field judge Allen Bayes for an explanation before heading into the locker room at halftime. But after they were flagged 11 times for 100 yards in Week 1, the Vikings were called eight times for another 100 yards in penalties on Sunday. Coach Mike Zimmer called Diggs’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty “selfish,” after Diggs’ decision to remove his helmet following his 45-yard touchdown led to a 48-yard extra point that Green Bay blocked. A holding call on Bradbury in the third quarter took the Vikings out of field goal range. Zimmer’s best teams have been some of the NFL’s least-penalized; the Vikings have a long way to go to put themselves atop those rankings.

Three players who stood out:
Dalvin Cook: It’s an easy designation, after Cook’s career-high 154 rushing yards on Sunday, but we should take a moment to go back and look at just how  good a day Cook had. Only five of his 20 carries went for two or fewer yards — a week after he had 11 such carries against Atlanta — and 10 of his runs gained at least four yards (including his 75-yard touchdown run). Cook’s eight-yard gain on the Vikings’ first drive showcased his nimble feet; he ran with power late in the game and caught three passes for 37 yards. The Vikings need him to stay healthy — he’s been their most productive offensive player by far.

Everson Griffen: The defensive end came into the game champing at the bit to face David Bakhtiari, believing he had found some ways to avoid Bakhtiari’s attempts to get his hands on him, and he cast a formidable presence for the second straight week. Even though he didn’t register a sack, he had three hits on Aaron Rodgers, and made his presence felt in other ways, as well. “I heard Everson a lot; he loves to talk and stuff, and he’s got a good energy about him on the field,” Rodgers said.

Eric Kendricks: To the extent the Vikings had a chance to come back and win the game even after Cousins’ interception with five minutes left, Kendricks helped make it happen. He never got a chance to look back for the ball on a 2nd-and-10 Aaron Jones wheel route after the Cousins pick, but Kendricks read Jones’ eyes and reached up to swat the ball away from the running back with his back to Rodgers. The breakup helped prevent a big gain that would have at least moved the Packers near midfield and might have netted more. Jayron Kearse stopped Marquez Valdes-Scantling short of a first down on the next play, and the Packers had to punt with just over four minutes left.

Three trends to watch:
The Vikings’ plan at nickel cornerback: It appeared Jayron Kearse was the recipient of Mike Zimmer’s quick hook on the Packers’ second drive, after giving up a 17-yard completion against Davante Adams. But then Rodgers went after Nate Meadors for his second touchdown pass, and the Vikings returned to Kearse in the slot for the rest of the game; he played 39 of their 75 defensive snaps, compared to just five for Meadors. It seemed unlikely the Vikings would bring Mike Hughes back for his first game against Rodgers at Lambeau Field; a home game against the Raiders on Sunday could be a more forgiving environment. But if Hughes needs more time to return from his torn ACL, and the Vikings continue to be without Mackensie Alexander because of his dislocated right elbow, they’re likely to see teams attacking their slot corners like Rodgers did on Sunday.

Secondary targets on offense: Any analysis of the Vikings’ passing trends through two games should take into account the fact they only threw the ball 10 times in Week 1. But after Cousins targeted three receivers — Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Cook — with seven of those 10 throws against the Falcons, he looked to those three options for 18 of his 32 throws on Sunday, and to tight end Kyle Rudolph for another five. The Vikings are leaning on young receivers like Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson behind Diggs and Thielen, and they only have four wideouts on the roster at the moment following Josh Doctson’s injury. They’ve also used Irv Smith as a blocker more than a receiver in the first two weeks; he had his first two targets on Sunday, and his first catch was a tight end screen that lost a yard. It’s worth watching how much the Vikings try to incorporate their younger skill players as the season progresses.

The Vikings’ ability to limit big plays: After allowing 17 plays of 20 yards or more in the first four games last season, the Vikings have only given up six in two weeks. None have been longer than the Packers’ game-opening 39-yarder to Davante Adams on Sunday, and after Rodgers hit Adams for 21 yards on the game’s second drive, he didn’t complete a pass longer than 15 yards. The Vikings forced Rodgers to hold the ball longer as the game progressed on Sunday, and that’s going to be a dicey proposition for most quarterbacks given how relentless their edge rushers can be. If they can tighten up their coverages the way they did Sunday, they’ll be able to continue limiting big plays.

And one big question:
How much can the Vikings expect Cousins to limit the turnovers? After the game on Sunday, Zimmer said Cousins has “all the talent. We just need to continue to coach him the way we want him to play.” The Vikings will certainly continue to work with their quarterback, and with Gary Kubiak on hand to help Klint Kubiak with the QBs, Cousins has a wealth of resources available to him during the week. But there’s a certain amount of playing quarterback that seems instinctual, and after four straight seasons of at least 10 interceptions, it’s fair to wonder how much that’s part of Cousins’ DNA as a QB. We should note here that Cousins was ninth in the league in interception rate last year, after ranking outside the top 10 for his first four years as a starter, and the fact he’s 31 doesn’t necessarily make him a finished product; none other than Brett Favre had the lowest interception rate of his career in 2009, while he played for the Vikings and current offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was the team’s assistant QB coach. We’ll see how much Cousins can cut down on the turnovers; the Vikings don’t have much of a choice but to hope he can.

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