The clock in quarterback Kirk Cousins’ head can’t tick for long behind this Vikings offensive line. But blocking was no excuse for how poorly Cousins played against a Falcons defense that has allowed more passing touchdowns than any NFL team.

Three interceptions in the first half is a first in Cousins’ nine-year NFL career. He’s never sunk a team’s chances so quickly. And while each pick presented a different set of problems, there’s a consistent issue in Cousins locking onto receivers and not adjusting after the snap, according to coach Mike Zimmer.

“The first one was the worst one, if you will,” Cousins said after the Vikings’ 40-23 loss. “First play of the game, and the coverage was not confusing. It was just a zone drop, and I simply forced the football into coverage, tried to do too much. That’s a mistake I may have made in Year 1, but I’m disappointed that I would do that now.” 

A brutally honest admission for a $32 million-per-year quarterback. The same lack of processing popped up on the second interception when Cousins didn’t react to the corner sitting in zone coverage next to his target.

“He might have locked on, pre-determined some throws,” Zimmer said Monday. “It’s just pre-snap read, probably determined a couple things a little too soon. He made some good throws in the second half. We just started out so poorly in the first half.” 

1. Kirk Cousins’ NFL-high 10 interceptions in six games are inflated by his fifth career start with at least three picks. While those turnover-heavy games are relatively rare for Cousins (five in 97 starts), interestingly they have come in bunches. In four of his five three-interception games, two of the picks came on back-to-back drives, including during Sunday’s loss.

On this third-and-9 play in the second quarter, Cousins said he diagnosed the Falcons’ Cover-2 coverage before the snap. But even with multiple indications of an underneath zone coverage, including the Falcons cornerback shifting outside with receiver Chad Beebe’s pre-snap motion, and Falcons defenders Deion Jones (#45) and Isaiah Oliver (#26) showing pressure before dropping, Cousins locks onto receiver Justin Jefferson (#18) as if cornerback A.J. Terrell (#24) is playing man coverage on Irv Smith Jr. up the sideline.

Jefferson and receiver Adam Thielen (#19) run ‘sticks’ routes, stopping at the first-down marker, with Thielen drawing the attention of Jones (#45) and Oliver (#26). This leads Cousins to throw to Jefferson, he said, thinking he had the space.

“Saw Cover 2,” Cousins said. “Felt them squeeze Adam, doubled Adam, and wanted to replace the squeeze with throwing it to Justin, and the cloud corner [A.J. Terrell #24] jumped it and made a good play.” 

I don’t know that I’d limit it to the interceptions,” Cousins said. “I think it’s just the entire offensive performance. It’s just, I need to be better, we need to be better.” 

2. Pressure often seems to eliminate the extra second Cousins needed to process the Falcons coverage and find the open man. 

During this second-and-14 play in the third quarter, Smith (#84) runs down the seam between the Falcons’ two-deep safety coverage shell. Atlanta shows a possible single-high look before the snap with both safeties offset and near the hashmarks, but they bail to deep zones at the snap.

Whether Cousins sees this or not — or is thrown off by the deep-dropping middle linebacker — becomes irrelevant when he doesn’t anticipate the throw to Smith in the quick seconds before interior pressure on a twist by Falcons defensive linemen Grady Jarrett and Steven Means.

Left guard Dakota Dozier ends up holding Jarrett, negating any gain on the play, which was there to Smith. Cousins sees the pressure and, with three interceptions already, takes the safe check-down to running back Alexander Mattison. But there was a huge play to be had if Cousins and the offensive line could’ve combined to make it work.

3. In his first NFL start replacing Dalvin Cook, running back Alexander Mattison slipped up at the goal line, according to Zimmer, just before he was pulled from the game and replaced by Mike Boone on third and fourth down.

A week after Mattison missed a hole on fourth down in Seattle, Zimmer said he “could have made a better read” on second down in the failed goal-to-go sequence.

Right tackle Brian O’Neill (#75) and right guard Ezra Cleveland (#72), the second-round rookie making his first NFL start, initially set a combo block on Falcons defensive end Allen Bailey (#93).

Mattison didn’t get many opportunities, and the chances he got weren’t appealing  while facing eight or more defenders in the box on a league-high 50 percent of his carries (5 of 10), according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The problem starts with the combo block not moving Bailey (#93), who advances onto the line of scrimmage. O’Neill (#75) probably could’ve helped out the rookie Cleveland (#72) with a better initial shot to Bailey, as Cleveland is no match to generate that push while O’Neill is quickly looking to block a linebacker.

Once Cleveland (#72) loses Bailey in that gap, Mattison tries to cut back inside, which is not the strength of this run blocking group. Perhaps Mattison could’ve found room bouncing this one to the right and outside, taking advantage of O’Neill’s decision to quickly bail on the combo block.

Mattison plows ahead for two yards to the Falcons’ 1-yard line, but watches the next two snaps from the sideline.

4. Tight end Irv Smith Jr.’s role is steadily growing. He’s aligned out wide or in the slot on a season-high 13 snaps in consecutive games. 

And in case you needed more evidence, for the first time in his two-year NFL career, Smith (44 snaps) played more than tight end Kyle Rudolph (38 snaps) in a game that wasn’t a blowout win or treated as a bye week (last year’s finale). Coordinator Gary Kubiak is scheming him touches, like this 36-yard catch using play action on first down.

Below, Smith (#84) moves in motion before the snap, aligning just inside of receiver Adam Thielen (#19) and matching him up with Falcons safety Keanu Neal (#22).

The play design sets up Smith on what looks like a deep over route off play action, but the nimble tight end stops on a dime and reverses field where he’s wide open as Neal (#22) stumbles to react.

Also, watch Cousins sidestep pressure and make this throw. He does not consistently have that feel in the pocket during games like Sunday.

5. Rookie Ezra Cleveland wasn’t alone in his struggles on the Vikings offensive line, even during plays in which he looked like the primary culprit. Cousins took eight hits but managed to only be sacked once, which was a quick pressure that had multiple failures.

On this first down in the third quarter, coordinator Gary Kubiak calls up a designed play-action pass with center Garrett Bradbury (#56) pulling in protection on the backside. This takes away any backside help for Cleveland (#72), who is left alone to handle Bailey (#93), which by the third quarter was a well-established mismatch. Bailey gets under Cleveland and benches him into the backfield for the sack.

Even if Cleveland held up his end, left guard Dakota Dozier (#78) didn’t put himself in position to handle Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (#97). Dozier moves too slowly to the right, doesn’t get to Jarrett’s left shoulder where he could accept help from left tackle Riley Reiff in the blocking scheme. Jarrett might’ve had the sack if Bailey didn’t.

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