Playing at home against an Eagles defense he has consistently handled during his career, Kirk Cousins looked as comfortable Sunday as he has in his 1½ seasons as Vikings quarterback. He unfurled deep shots to Stefon Diggs and connected with Adam Thielen in the middle of the Eagles’ zone defenses, posting his second four-touchdown game as a Viking against a team set up to shut down Dalvin Cook.
A third consecutive victory for the Vikings on Sunday, and a third consecutive 300-yard passing game for the quarterback, will in all likelihood require Cousins and company to master a different set of challenges. Their last chance for an NFC North road victory this season comes against a Lions team emphasizing man-to-man coverage principles derived from coach Matt Patricia’s time as Patriots defensive coordinator, and the approach New England used to slow down Diggs and Thielen last December — keying on the two receivers with occasional third-down double-teams — could be back in play Sunday.
“Yeah, I mean probably,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Paul Pasqualoni, who was with me in Dallas [as a linebackers coach in 2005 and 2006], is running the defense. I don’t know how much influence they all have with one another. Paul and [Patricia] worked together way back [at Syracuse]. I think they’ll do some of that, yeah.”
The Lions held Diggs to two catches for 10 yards last December, and stopped Thielen’s streak of eight consecutive 100-yard games when Diggs was out for the teams’ matchup last November at U.S. Bank Stadium, using plenty of press coverage from Nevin Lawson when Thielen was lined up outside.
The Vikings won both games, 24-9 and 27-9.
“You enjoy playing [against] man-to-man. You’ve just got to win your one-on-one; that’s what it comes down to,” Diggs said. “If you win your one-on-one battle, you have success. You want that, compared to a team that plays a lot of zone, then you’ve got to find the open spot and kind of play off them. You’ve just got to get open.”
The Vikings’ deep throws to Diggs during his three-TD game came largely off play-action, with Cousins giving a bit of a head fake to freeze the Eagles’ quarters coverage before his 62-yard score to Diggs and using a full play-fake before a 51-yard score later in the game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins is 19-of-24 for 383 yards and four scores off play-action in the team’s past two games. The Vikings’ third-ranked run game might make it more difficult for the Lions to key on Diggs and Thielen the way they were able to do last year. And if they ignore the Vikings’ run fakes, the way the Packers did in an effort to cut off Cousins’ space for bootlegs, the Vikings won’t mind room for Cook to run against the NFL’s 27th-ranked run defense.
“Every defense we play this year will be vastly different, and they’re going to probably have a different philosophy on what needs to be stopped and taken away,” Cousins said. “We don’t know that until we line up, and so there’s a level of, ‘Hey, let’s play early in the game and get a feel for what they’re wanting to do, and let’s be ready to react accordingly.’ All week long, you prepare knowing that, ‘Hey, this set of plays may not even get dialed, if we get into a game where they’re not going to work, and vice versa, if they’re going to take away this other piece of our offense over here, we’ve got to be ready to run all these plays.’
“You’ve got to prepare for a lot, knowing not everything’s going to get called or work well. But when you can run the football well, execute play-action, execute screens, protect in the drop-back game, have guys open versus man coverage, you start to have success in a lot of different areas.”
The Vikings have won twice with their quarterback throwing for more than 300 yards; they have won twice by posting more than 170 yards on the ground. Last December, with the Lions keying on the Vikings’ top two wideouts, tight end Kyle Rudolph caught nine passes for 122 yards and a pair of scores.
Which approach they will take against the Lions this time remains to be seen. But as the two teams fight to avoid a third loss with the 5-1 Packers playing at home against the Raiders on Sunday, the Vikings receivers expect aggressive treatment from the Detroit secondary.
“That’s what they do,” Diggs said. “From the games that I’ve seen since I’ve been here, they’ve had their guys just pretty much pick two guys: ‘You cover him, you cover him.’ That’s what I’ve seen. I expect the same thing. If they switch it up, we’re going to have to adjust on the fly.”