Coordinator Klint Kubiak kept talking about building up tackle Christian Darrisaw the "right way," giving the first-round pick enough practice reps before throwing the rookie to the NFL pass-rushing wolves.
Darrisaw's foundation appeared just fine against the Panthers and edge rusher Brian Burns, thanks to an impressive combination of power and athleticism, and a game plan geared toward helping him, especially in obvious passing situations. Even so, it was an impressive debut by Darrisaw against one of the league's better pass rushers.
"He did really well," coach Mike Zimmer said. "First time out against a good, Burns is a good pass rusher. He did a nice job there. He got beat once, I think, in a pass protection. There was one play he was supposed to do something he didn't do. But other than that, I thought he played very well. He's very athletic."
Coincidentally, this wasn't Darrisaw's first start against Burns. He faced the former Florida St. star during his first start as a true freshman for Virginia Tech in 2018.
"It's crazy. It was like, maybe this was meant to be or something," Darrisaw said. "Now here we are in the NFL, and that's who I'm getting my first start against. I gave up a sack against him in college, and I just had that in my mind, like, 'No sacks this week. I'm going to have him on lockdown.'"
1. Darrisaw had a few true one-on-one opportunities against Burns, who was held to a season-low two pressures on Cousins, according to Pro Football Focus. The Vikings coaching staff schemed a lot of help for the rookie, with receiver K.J. Osborn or tight end Tyler Conklin blocking or chipping defenders on passing downs. It was a smart approach entering his first start. But Darrisaw did so well, perhaps he showed he needs less help going forward. That can open things up on offense.
Below is an example of a one-on-one with Burns. Just before halftime, the Vikings are in an obvious passing situation where Burns can pin his ears back. Darrisaw is left alone against him in a five-man protection.
A couple things really stand out to this layman about Darrisaw's pass protection set — his nimble feet that move fluidly and allow him to mirror Burns. That kind of lateral quickness in someone Darrisaw's size is hard to find. He also gives up little to no ground, and could've held up much longer than the 2.5ish seconds before Cousins aborts this busted play.
2. Darrisaw showed a first-round blend of strength and quickness in the running game. Coaches might like to see him play through the whistle and stick to blocks more frequently, among the broader criticisms, but you can see why the 315-pound blocker was a top draft pick. He has powerful hands that defenders seemed to stick to at times. He also moved bodies in multiple situations: sprinting into the open field to wall off a defensive back for Cook's 23-yard run in the fourth quarter, and driving 330-pound Panthers defensive tackle Bravvion Roy backward in the trenches later in the game.
He also threw a key block with left guard Ezra Cleveland to clear the runway for fullback C.J. Ham's 30-yard run in the third quarter.
Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown (#95), the seventh-overall pick in 2020, is the one put on skates by Darrisaw and Cleveland.
"Me and Ezra," Darrisaw said, "we knew that play was coming right behind us. We had the big block, the most important block on the field moving that 3-tech [defensive tackle] out the way, and we got it done. Seeing him make that cut, he almost scored if he'd have had one more block."
3. There were plenty of moments to learn from. Cousins saved Darrisaw from a near disaster at the end of regulation. Burns beat him with a speed rush that could've led to a turnover in their own territory with the game tied at 28-28.
It's a quick-hitting play call with shorter routes and a five-man protection, leaving no help for Darrisaw.
Likely seeing this, Burns turns on the jets with an outside move. Zimmer recalled Darrisaw getting "beat once" in pass protection, and this was likely what he was talking about.
Strong pocket presence from Cousins here saves the play. As soon as Burns puts his left hand on Cousins' hip, the quarterback tucks the ball before Burns' right hand can swipe at it. He then runs for 16 yards, which helped give kicker Greg Joseph a chance to end the game in regulation.
"Beat [Darrisaw] off the ball easy," Burns said after the game. "Went for the strip, should've secured the sack."
4. Kubiak's scheming eased the burden on Darrisaw. The passing attack was really quick. A bevy of screens and smoke routes (one-step curls) led a game plan that had Cousins getting the ball out in 2.34 seconds on average. He threw 30 of 48 passes quicker than 2.5 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. The line wasn't tested long very often.
But the Vikings had sound plans for buying time and taking shots. In those spots, Darrisaw often saw help from a running back, receiver, or tight end in pass protection. Or the play simply rolled away from his side, like Cousins' key 13-yard throw to Osborn in overtime.
On third down, Darrisaw is lined up across from Burns. But he doesn't touch the Panthers' best pass rusher on this play, which calls for a 7-man pass protection and Cousins rolling to his right from the shotgun. Osborn (#17) said afterward he was the third read on this play, indicating Cousins was first looking toward Justin Jefferson (#18) and Adam Thielen (#19).
Dalvin Cook (#33) has the backside block, putting him on Burns, in this protection scheme. Darrisaw (#71) slides right with the offensive line, putting him in a relatively easy position without a direct defender across from him.
Cousins turns to Osborn as the last option on a crossing route, which takes time — and pass protection — to develop.
"I was the backside, like the last read, so usually it comes out pretty quick [to someone else]," Osborn said. "The line protected well, gave Kirk some time, and he found me there in the back. So that was a good play."
5. The play-action passing game is foundational in making life easier on the offensive line. Coaches found ways to revive it against the Panthers.
Cousins had his best play-action passing day of the season — 8 of 10 for 137 yards and a touchdown — after having 136 yards combined in the previous three games. The success came from altered approaches. Kubiak continued to give Cousins moving pockets, but this time many came from the shotgun.
Kubiak spent much of last week saying the offense needed to be less predictable, and putting Cousins back in the shotgun (or pistol formations) was one way. No NFL offense used shotgun less than the Vikings in 2019 and 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Yet it was a fixture on early downs against Carolina. Below is the 35-yard play to Thielen, which helped jumpstart the offense in a pivotal stretch of the third quarter.
The Panthers show a two-deep safety look before rolling into a single-high coverage. This opens up Thielen (#19) on a deep over route. Kubiak's play design still incorporates a play-action bootleg, but from the shotgun, which buys time for Thielen to get open downfield.
Thielen gets separation from the cornerback in man-to-man coverage. The Panthers' lone safety drifts to his left, matching Cousins' rollout to the right, putting the safety in bad position over Thielen's route. It's an easy 35 yards.
Remember Cousins missing Jefferson deep early in the game?
It was the same play call as Thielen's 35-yarder, only with Jefferson in the slot instead of Thielen, and slightly different routes and pre-snap motions.