Most NFL fans are pretty savvy about the value of screaming their brains out any time the enemy faces third down. And those who aren’t as astute typically get eardrum-splitting cues via piped-in sound effects and overcaffeinated public address announcers screaming that it’s time to become verbally unhinged.
No venue is better at this than the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And yet it was Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins who outclassed future Hall of Famer Drew Brees on third-down plays as a 7½-point road playoff underdog in Sunday’s 26-20 overtime upset.
Against the Saints’ No. 6-ranked third down defense, Cousins completed nine of 12 passes with seven first downs, no turnovers, 110 yards and the game-ending touchdown in overtime.
Meanwhile, against the Vikings’ 19th-ranked defense, Brees completed five of seven passes with two first downs, no touchdowns, an interception and a measly 17 yards, 14 of which came on his last third-down attempt.
“It’s a tough [third-down] environment, but you also understand that and train for it,” Cousins said. “That’s my job, our job as a team, as an offense to be effective in those situations no matter how challenging they may be. Fortunately, we made enough plays.”
In fact, Cousins would have been 11 of 12 with nine first downs and about 50 more yards if rookies Bisi Johnson and Alexander Hollins hadn’t dropped passes.
As it was, the Vikings still converted a season-high 10 third downs overall. In the toughest environment they’ll face all season.
Next up on Saturday is San Francisco and a more forgiving but still NFL-caliber venue in terms of noisy fans. The NFC’s No. 1-seeded 49ers match the Saints’ 13 wins while ranking higher in third-down defense (No. 2, 33.3%) and sacks per pass play (No. 3, 9.25%).
Cousins feels prepared. And not just because the Vikings will spend this week practicing as artificial crowd noise blares through nearby speakers.
Cousins was asked if there’s anything else quarterbacks can do on their own to prepare for the nerve-racking noise of third downs on the road. Anything that can train one to lower his heart rate, control his breathing and maintain focus.
“There’s a lot,” he said. “Year round I’m doing things to train. Starting with my sleep, my diet, my practice reps out here, memorization of the plays all week to try and make the calling of the play and the execution of it as easy as possible. Neurofeedback and all kinds of things you do to try and be at your absolute best.”
He brushed aside a follow-up question on “neurofeedback,” but that was a reference to his long relationship with a Michigan-based company called Neurocore.
In past interviews, Cousins has talked about how Neurocore’s brain-training exercises “retrained” his brain to operate in a “sweet spot” even as 70,000 people are screaming for his brain to malfunction. During the exercises, electrodes attached to the scalp monitor brain activity and activate positive feedback when the brain, heart rate and breathing reaches that so-called “sweet spot.”
Cousins has worked with Neurocore since his days at Michigan State. According to the Washington Post, he stepped up his training with the company after Washington benched him in 2014, his third NFL season.
“I see it as the next frontier,” Cousins told the Post in 2015. “You look at weightlifting in the 1950s and ’60s, not every football player was lifting weights. … Now everybody has a strength coach; everybody lifts weights. And I see brain training kind of being that next thing. I just want to maximize what I’ve got.”
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was Washington’s offensive coordinator during Cousins’ first two seasons. He turned him on to brain-training exercises.
“That’s something I always respected about how Kirk thought,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “Kirk’s always doing something to better himself as a player, as a man, as a husband, a person, everything. He’s off the charts with that stuff.
“I don’t know how much that’s done for him as a player. … But I believed it enough. That’s why I do that stuff also. I think it’s good for anybody.”
Critics can make the argument that Cousins’ brain has often struggled finding its “sweet spot” on game days. But it sure connected in the Big Easy.
“It’s how he’s looked all year,” Shanahan said. “That’s why when you take out running the ball on third down, Minnesota is the No. 2-ranked passing team on third down. That’s what the challenge is this week."56