Jaguars defensive pressure almost folded the edges of the Vikings' play-action passing game during Sunday's 27-24 overtime win. And with the blitz-happy Buccaneers up next, coordinator Gary Kubiak and his coaching staff need more ways to clear throwing lanes for Kirk Cousins.
Cousins is taking a beating. He's never taken more hits — 30 — over a three-game span in his NFL career, including Sunday's career-worst 14 hits by a Jaguars defense that was struggling to sack anybody entering the game. Half of the hits came while being blitzed on 34.7% of his dropbacks, an aggressive rate Jacksonville typically doesn't reach.
"We tried to get Kirk to throw the ball and get pressure in his face, and not let him have a lot of time to throw to the receivers they've got," Jaguars linebacker Joe Schobert said, "and I think we were able to execute that for the most part."
Cousins overcame some issues, the "miscommunication" that led to a pick-six off a throw Dalvin Cook wasn't seeking, a botched snap, a botched handoff, and handled the heat better in the third quarter when Kubiak's play-calling seemingly caught up. Cousins minimized some of the damage, with a 10-yard run and throwing away passes, but he still took a season-worst four sacks, including two while holding the ball too long.
"He's done really well," coach Mike Zimmer said. "We're getting a lot of [pressure] based on them getting extra guys in there to try and set edges on Cook and things like that. But I think he's done good. He took some shots [Sunday] and hung in there and made some great throws. So he's been under a little bit of duress the last two weeks. We have an opportunity to slow some of that down by some of the things we're doing."
1. Typically open play-action bootlegs were cut off by an aggressive Jaguars defense that often deployeda six-wide front on early downs. It combatted the Vikings' outside zone running game and its deep play-action throws. Jacksonville tried, and largely succeeded, to fold the edges of those perimeter runs and bootlegs.
Throughout the game, the "field" side bookend of the six-wide front, Jaguars linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (#43) on this first down below, attacked downhill, either cutting off a run or blitzing Cousins. The "boundary" side bookend, safety Josh Jones (#29), read run or pass and bailed into coverage if necessary. "Field" side means the largest side to defend, so with the ball on the right hash mark, it's the offense's left.
Many of Jacksonville's "blitzes" were these six-wide fronts turning into five-man pressures, trigged by the Vikings' play-action passing.
Against the blitz on Sunday, Cousins completed just 6 of 14 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown while taking three sacks and another four hits.
This play goes down as an incompletion and a hit, with tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82) wide open on the deep crossing route, but Cousins unable to make the throw with Giles-Harris (#43) blitzing.
2. Kubiak had answers in the third quarter, which went fairly well for the Vikings after Cousins' interception was returned for a touchdown.
Shorter play-action drops and 'max' protection were an effective counterpunch, leading to quicker throws like Cousins' 12-yard touchdown to fullback C.J. Ham. The Vikings need more ways like this to take advantage of aggressive fronts, especially with the Buccaneers and their 39.3% blitz rate coming on Sunday.
Once again, the "field" side bookend of this Jaguars' six-wide front, safety Jarrod Wilson (#26), crashes downhill against whatever is coming. Anticipating this, the Vikings have Ham (#30) leak into the flat for a quick pass.
Running back Dalvin Cook does a really good job of cutting a pass rusher in front of Cousins, giving the quarterback some space.
3. The Vikings' interior offensive line still needs an upgrade, because while veteran Dakota Dozier has filled in admirably at left guard, perhaps he's best suited for that old Joe Berger role of coming off the bench for all three interior jobs.
Or maybe offensive line coach Rick Dennison thinks the 29-year-old Dozier can continue to develop. But too often Dozier is seemingly caught off balance or late to react to twists or stunts. The Jaguars pulled out the "coffeehouse" stunt in an obvious pass-rush situation on third-and-9 just before halftime.
Linebacker Joe Schobert (#47) looks away at the snap, faking like he's dropping into coverage, while defensive tackle Caraun Reid (#92) crosses Dozier's face and into center Garrett Bradbury.
Dozier (#78) slides to his right to help Bradbury with Reid (#92), and he's not able to pick up Schobert (#47), who dives to sack Cousins. Cook picks up a blitzing Josh Jones (#29), leaving no help for Dozier.
Cousins' most hits taken in an NFL game
14 — Sunday vs. Jaguars
12 — Jan. 10, 2016 vs. Packers (playoffs)
11 — Oct. 7, 2018 vs. Eagles
11 — Nov. 5, 2017 vs. Seahawks
10 — Oct. 23, 2017 vs. Eagles
(source: official NFL game books)
4. Extra blockers to counter the pass rush meant fewer routes, and a couple coverage sacks. Not every sack can be pinned on an offensive line, and Cousins had ample time to throw somewhere on two of the four sacks.
On this second-and-9 play below, the Jaguars disguise the six-wide front before the snap. Linebacker Myles Jack (#44) drops onto the edge at the last second, blitzing as the "field" side bookend.
The Vikings get solid blocking and additional pass protection with tight end Kyle Rudolph and Cook to buy time, but all three downfield routes are covered.
Cook eventually becomes an option for Cousins, who tries to evade pressure from Dozier's side and takes a sack.
Pressures are forming a pattern, according to Zimmer, a week after the Panthers were similarly aggressive.
"Basically Carolina did the same thing," Zimmer said. "They blitzed a lot of linebackers, blitzed the safeties off the edges, so they're trying to set the edges with those guys coming. And then if it happens to be a pass, they've got some extra rushers coming in there. But we have some ways to affect that, as well. And you know, we're still scoring 26 points a game."
5. Kubiak went back to the well, and tried to hit the Jaguars with more deep play-action bootlegs when it had seemed the Vikings pivoted away from them. But Jacksonville had a few second-half disguises to unleash its same plan.
Once again, Jaguars linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (#43) is the "field" side bookend sent to blitz either a run or bootleg pass. On this second-and-7 play in the fourth quarter, at least two Vikings receivers are left open in Rudolph (#82) and Justin Jefferson (#18) because Giles-Harris chases and knocks down Cousins.
Before the snap, Giles-Harris (#43) aligns like he's in man-to-man coverage on Jefferson in the slot. But he crashes onto the line of scrimmage to take away a possible cutback lane for Cook, and transitions to Cousins once he sees it's a pass.