There have been enough poor performances during the Vikings’ 0-2 start to spread the blame around quarterback Kirk Cousins, which is what head coach Mike Zimmer did following Sunday’s 28-11 loss in Indianapolis.
Cousins, whose 15.9 passer rating against the Colts was the franchise’s fourth-worst game by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era, had his first three-interception game for Minnesota, but those plays were not necessarily emblematic of the bigger problems like others diagrammed below.
“Kirk’s a veteran guy that has had a lot of success in this league,” Zimmer said Monday. “We expect him to come back and play better this week. But we expect everybody to come back and play better. There was times in the game where we get an 11-yard run and we get called for holding. We dropped a lot of balls (three drops on 26 passes), which you wouldn’t expect from the receivers that we have.”
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1. Cousins’ improvisational shortcomings were too apparent on play-action bootlegs like this first-and-10 play in the first quarter.
Because of the Vikings’ below-average offensive line, opponents like the Colts do not need extra defenders up front to stop the run. Indy’s towering defensive tackles — DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) and Grover Stewart (6-foot-4) — paired with edge defender Justin Houston meant the Colts often controlled the line of scrimmage.
This made first downs difficult for the Vikings offense, which gained eight yards — eight, total — on 11 first downs midway through the third quarter; Cousins completed 2 of 6 passes for three yards.
One of those incompletions had a lot of promise.
Receiver Adam Thielen (#19) gets open deep on this play-action bootleg on first down during the opening drive. Coordinator Gary Kubiak’s play call has tight ends Kyle Rudolph (#82) and Irv Smith Jr. (#84) flooding right as they fake the run left.
The problems start with Colts defensive lineman Denico Autry (#96), who reads the run fake immediately and cuts upfield. Autry’s charge puts Cousins on skates as he floats backward and tosses a pass to an out-of-bounds Smith.
Colts linebackers (circled) also don’t bite much on the run fake, and they cover Rudolph as the Colts corner covers Smith. The Vikings’ run game, or at least the line’s ability to block for it, was not respected. And perhaps in a world where the Vikings quarterback can find a way to dodge Autry and create, he might’ve found Thielen for six between the deep safeties.
2. Cousins’ margin for error is razor thin behind this offensive line, and the second safety in as many games illustrated that.
Standing on his own goal line, Cousins has Thielen (#19) sent in pre-snap motion from left to right. This is where Cousins first looks to throw as no Colts defender travels with Thielen, but the safety comes up to meet him at the line.
Upon seeing tight coverage, Cousins looks left and pats the ball once — which is all the hesitation needed for an interior D-line twist to create pressure up the middle.
If Cousins is able to pull the trigger quicker, while perhaps seeing Cook (#33) in the flat or that safety Malik Hooker (#29) dropped deep and left receiver Justin Jefferson (#18) open underneath, he may have had a completion while taking the hit.
This Colts’ D-line twist is all Buckner (#99), setting up the lane for Autry by purposefully occupying a double team in left guard Dakota Dozier and center Garrett Bradbury.
3. Center Garrett Bradbury and the Vikings’ 2019 draft class had a rough afternoon. Bradbury, the first-round pick, had some tough matchups going into this one, but you can’t imagine Colts DT Taylor Stallworth (#76) was occupying much game planning. Stallworth just signed with the Colts last month, and contributed to Bradbury’s inconsistent run blocking.
After a successful 4-yard shotgun handoff to fullback C.J. Ham, Kubiak puts Cousins back under center and tries, rather curiously, to muscle the Vikings’ way into the end zone. But this offensive line does not generate such confidence, or such a push across all five spots as the middle breaks down in this play below.
The Vikings go combo double team blocks on the defensive tackles, with left guard Dakota Dozier (#78) hitting Stallworth (#76) to help Bradbury get to Stallworth’s left side for the reach block.
Bradbury successfully gets in front of Stallworth, but seems to overrun his block. At one point, Bradbury is facing the sideline and is tossed out of the way when Cook makes the decision to take his run north.
If Bradbury could’ve held for a stalemate, Cook might’ve found daylight for the early touchdown on the opening drive. Instead, the Vikings settled for a field goal and 3-0 lead.
Bradbury was not alone in the 2019 draft class’ issues. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. was flagged twice, and both were bone-headed moves: an illegal crackback block on linebacker Darius Leonard and offensive pass interference for shoving a defensive back to the ground downfield. Smith, who finished with one grab for three yards, also had a roughly 20-yard pass jarred loose on a big hit.
4. Right guard Dru Samia had his welcome-to-the-NFL moment, as another member of the 2019 draft class who struggled Sunday. Samia’s shortcomings, however, were the most understandable as he made his first NFL start in place of guard Pat Elflein (IR/thumb). Samia only once before played extended snaps in an NFL game, during the 2019 regular season finale.
Samia was thrown into some unenviable positions, with predictable results. Singled up one-on-one with Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner on this second-and-9 play, Samia is jettisoned from the turf in a play where Buckner had the upper hand in power and technique.
5. There were some head-scratching play calls from Kubiak, including the third down following Eric Wilson’s interception. On this third-and-9 play — at a point in the game prior to the safety — Cousins hands off to running back Alexander Mattison (#25) from near his own goal line.
If that doesn’t scream confidence on your second drive… The play at least leverages the Colts’ safety help over Thielen (#19) by steering Mattison to the other side.
But the Colts have one of the best run-stopping slot corners in Kenny Moore (#23), and he breezes past rookie Justin Jefferson (#18) to tackle Mattison.
At the end of the opening drive, Cousins had been hit twice (including a roughing call) on his previous two pass plays when Kubiak put him in an empty backfield on third-and-goal from the Colts’ 3. Knowing it was a pass, the Colts initially covered well. Cousins looked jittery, bouncing in the pocket with happy feet before sailing a pass out of the back of the end zone on third down.