On Sunday, the Vikings' defense forced just two punts, allowing the Lions to score on five of their last six possessions. Their running game produced only 22 yards on 17 carries. And with center Garrett Bradbury and left tackle Christian Darrisaw both out because of injury, the Lions pressured Kirk Cousins on 36.4 percent of his dropbacks, sacking him three times and forcing him to shake off eight hits.
It provided the backdrop for the kind of day, in a 34-23 loss, when Cousins is often either expected to produce or said to be incapable of delivering. He completed 31 of his 41 passes, throwing two touchdowns and passing for 425 yards, which matched his total from a 2018 Week 2 tie in Green Bay for his most in a Vikings uniform. In the second half alone, Cousins was 14 of 19 for 243 yards, helping Justin Jefferson break Sammy White's single-game regular-season receiving yardage record.
"He was attempting to will our football team to a victory," coach Kevin O'Connell said of Cousins. "Justin's adjustments he made since the last time he played against these guys, I thought he played incredibly fast and explosive and Kirk was right there with him every step of the way. I am really proud of those guys, and I think that will help us continue to help us moving forward. We did a lot of different things today in the pass game to kind of have a plan of attack based off of what we saw the last time [against the Lions]. Pair that with a little bit better of a day running the football, and I think that [puts us] offensively in a place where we feel like we can compete."
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins was only expected to complete 58.1% of his passes Sunday, given the difficulty of the throws he made in the game. He finished with a 75.6% percentage — 17.5 percentage points over expectations, the fifth-highest such figure in the NFL this season.
He did it while the aforementioned pressure tested his footwork and durability. With the Vikings unable to run the ball effectively and facing a double-digit deficit for much of the second half, the Lions were able to send pass rushers after Cousins with few reservations. The quarterback rolled to his right to avoid a sack in the second quarter, firing for Jefferson along the sideline, and avoided a sack on the next series before a 13-yard completion to Jefferson.
"You're going to get hit; you understand that," Cousins said. "You've got your chiropractor, your tissue person lined up for Monday afternoon. I'll do my same routine I've been doing for five seasons here in Minnesota and beyond, going back to Washington, just keep employing my same routine and get put back together. We dropped back a lot today, and it was on the road, so there's some challenges that come with that. I just was proud of the way protection held up, and receivers and tight ends getting separation between coverages."
O'Connell's point about the running game is an important one; without an effective complement to keep the Vikings out of obvious passing situations, it's tough to imagine their offense will be sustainable against the quality of pass rush they could see against Dallas, Philadelphia or San Francisco in the playoffs.
On Sunday, though, Cousins and Jefferson turned in some of their best work when everyone knew what was coming. It might have done more to shape the narratives about the quarterback had it come in a victory, but it was noteworthy nonetheless.
"Every single game, he's had more confidence to throw the ball toward me; it doesn't matter if I'm getting double-teamed or not," Jefferson said. "I love that he has that confidence in me. It kind of helps me carry that confidence, as well. It creates that momentum, that energy we need on the field."
One area of concern
The Vikings' running game: According to data from NFL Fast R, the Vikings have been successful on just 37.3% of their run attempts, the sixth-lowest rate in the league. On Sunday, seven of their 17 run attempts went for no gain or lost yardage. For the season, they've had 80 runs stopped for no gain or for negative yardage; that's the fifth-highest total in the league, despite the fact the Vikings' 303 rushing attempts are the fifth-fewest in the NFL.
"We've tried to be consistent with it and have been able to grind out some 25, 27, 28-plus carry type of games that [average] four or five [yards] a carry," O'Connell said. "It's one thing to not really have those explosives, but it's another thing to have the negatives. I think we had five [negative runs] today, so first and foremost, we've got to eliminate the negatives in the run game. I think that's where when we're accounting for a hat on a hat in the box, and we've got a plan, there's where the execution word tends to come up, but yeah, that's going to be a major focus, making sure we continue to have some balance with our offense to help try to apply pressure to the defense."
One trend to watch
Brian Asamoah's role: We have mentioned it before, particularly as O'Connell has said he wants the rookie linebacker to play more often. But with Jordan Hicks scheduled to have a magnetic resonance imaging exam on his left foot after getting injured Sunday, Asamoah could take on a bigger role in the next few weeks before the playoffs. He played 12 defensive snaps on Sunday, his second-most in a game this season. If he's asked to play more in the final four regular season games, it could help keep Hicks healthier for the postseason and give the Vikings opportunities to employ the rookie's speed, either as a pass rusher or in an effort to counteract some of the intermediate routes that have given the Vikings trouble in recent weeks.