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.