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 five of Cousins' passes at the line of scrimmage on Sunday, with a sixth falling to the quarterback, who lost two yards after catching the deflection. The batted passes accounted for five of 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 23 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 matched that mark in 2018, and is tied for the league lead.
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.
"Some of them were quick passes, where the line was sliding one way and the back was going the other way and we were cutting the defensive end with the back," Zimmer said. "There was two times they jumped over the top of them and tipped the ball down. One time he ended up sacking him; there was one when we ran a naked (bootleg) and we left a guy alone on that side who wasn't blocked, so basically a few of the times were when we didn't block. There were a couple times where we got pushed back a little bit and guys got their hands up. One of the early ones, maybe the third down or fourth down early in the game I think we got pushed back on those two."
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.