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Locked into receivers, Cousins hurts Vikings by not being able to adjust

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.

While NFL interceptions at all-time low, Cousins nears his season high

Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:

Following Mike Zimmer’s subdued news conference at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, quarterback Kirk Cousins met with reporters to talk about his three-interception game in the Vikings’ 40-23 loss to the Falcons. On a day where his first pass went to Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones and three of his first 14 ended up in the Falcons’ hands, Cousins faced the public with little to do but own up to the defeat.

“It was not good enough, especially in the first half, and I’ll take the responsibility for it,” he said. 

When Zimmer was asked during his news conference if he’d given any thought to pulling Cousins from the game, he simply said, “No.”

A reporter posited the coach’s comment might have been a vote of confidence for Cousins, but instead of accepting that premise, the quarterback — seen above discussing a second-quarter interception with QB coach Klint Kubiak — turned the focus back on himself.

“You know what, you just have to play well in this business,” he said. “The reality is if the pace I’m on in terms of the interceptions, if that were to continue, I won’t finish the season.“

His first interception, which Cousins called his worst of the day, mirrored the one he threw to K.J. Wright the week before, when the Seahawks linebacker undercut a throw for Justin Jefferson. Against the Falcons, it was Deion Jones dropping in a zone and picking off a pass that Cousins said he forced; there were five Falcons defenders within several yards of Jefferson when Jones intercepted the ball.

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

Cousins’ financial security and the Vikings’ relative lack of experience behind him (Sean Mannion’s start in the Vikings’ trivial Week 17 game last year was just the second of his career) creates something of a buffer between the quarterback and the bench. That Cousins raised the possibility on Sunday, though, is worth noting given the fact it comes at a point where quarterbacks are throwing fewer interceptions than ever.

According to Pro Football Reference, quarterbacks entered Sunday having been intercepted on just 2.2 percent of their passes. That mark was on pace to surpass the mark set in 2016 and equaled in 2019 (2.3 percent) as the lowest in league history. Nine of the 10 full seasons with the lowest interception percentage came in the 2010s, and in 2019, a record nine quarterbacks — including Cousins — threw interceptions on 1.5 percent of their passes or fewer.

It all makes the fact Cousins has thrown a NFL-high 10 interceptions in six games more alarming. He’s already tied his 2018 season for his most interceptions in Minnesota, and is only three away from matching his career high of 13 for Washington in 2017.

The Vikings gave up 40 points at home for the second time this season after having never done so in Zimmer’s first six seasons. No team abides turnovers well, but in the Vikings’ past two games, their five giveaways have resulted in 31 points.

“I need to correct it,” Cousins said. “I need to finish the season with a different story, regarding the interceptions, so that’s something I need to improve with the remaining games we have.”

Curiosity around the Zimmer/Cousins relationship piqued after the Vikings’ loss to the Titans, when the coach said he expected the team’s veteran offense to go win the game in the final minutes and called its final drive “chaos,” to which Cousins responded, “You’ll have to ask Coach specifically what he meant.” He later added, “Any time you have almost 500 yards of offense and score almost 30 points, you’re doing something correct.”

On Sunday, there was more resignation in Zimmer’s voice, while Cousins absorbed blame for a loss as directly as he’s ever done.

The two men were given new contracts in the offseason; Zimmer’s runs through 2023, while Cousins’ deal includes prohibitive costs for letting the quarterback go before his contract runs out in 2022. For better or worse, the coach (and general manager Rick Spielman) seem tied to the quarterback, who’s throwing a league-high number of interceptions at a time when his counterparts are more effective with the football than ever.

Here is one other area of concern from the Vikings’ loss to the Falcons:

Guard play: As big of an issue as this was for the Vikings before the season, their early-season injuries have revealed their young players might not be quite ready to handle the job. Ezra Cleveland started for the first time on Sunday, giving up a sack to Allen Bailey and allowing the tackle to shed his block before stopping Alexander Mattison near the goal line in the second quarter. Pat Elflein could return from his thumb injury sometime in the second half of the season, but even he had struggled when he was healthy early in the year. With the 2017 draft pick out, the Vikings’ selections from the 2019 draft (Dru Samia) and 2020 draft (Cleveland) have gone through some tough moments.

Two players who stood out
Justin Jefferson: Though we should note that three of Cousins’ last four interceptions, including his first two on Sunday, were thrown toward the rookie receiver, that’s in some ways an indicator of usage as much as anything. Heavily-targeted receivers tend to attract more attention in coverage, and also tend to lead the league in number of interceptions intended for them, as Jefferson currently does (per Pro Football Focus). The receiver also did much of his damage once the Falcons had built their lead (which, again, might say as much about Cousins’ comfort level as it does about Jefferson). But with his contested catches and his ability to run after the catch (his 20.64 mph top speed on a 35-yard catch and run was the eighth-fastest in the league in Week 6, according to NFL Next Gen Stats), Jefferson showed again how complete of a receiver he can become in his rookie year.

Eric Kendricks: In a year where many of his front-seven compatriots are either on other teams (Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph) or injured (Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr), Kendricks feels like he’s working overtime in an attempt to keep things together. He played 80 snaps on Sunday, recording 14 combined tackles and a hit on Matt Ryan.

Two trends to watch
The cornerback picture: The two rookie corners who have played the most for Zimmer since he came to Minnesota, in terms of starts and number of snaps, are the two who started for the Vikings on Sunday. Jeff Gladney has now started five games and played 340 snaps; Cameron Dantzler has started four and played 261, surpassing Mike Hughes’ 243 in 2018. The Vikings finished Sunday  with three rookie corners on Sunday, with Harrison Hand stepping in after Hughes, who sustained a cracked vertebra last year, injured his neck for the second time this season. The Vikings’ bye week could give them time to get Holton Hill and Kris Boyd healthy, but if Hughes’ neck issues are a cause for long-term concern, the Vikings will have to hope their rookies develop while “learning by fire,” as Zimmer put it Sunday.

How the Vikings use Irv Smith the rest of the way: Smith played six more snaps (44 to 38) than Kyle Rudolph on Sunday, and has carved out a bigger role in the passing game. He was in the slot for a season-high 10 snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, and is especially likely to play more in the games where the Vikings need to throw frequently. There’s a larger context to this topic, too; Rudolph is scheduled to make $9.45 million in 2021, and a cap-strapped Vikings team would save $4.35 million next year by releasing him. In the NFL, shifts in playing time often have a price tag attached to them, and it would be naive not to consider the financial ramifications of Smith taking on a bigger role.

One big question
Is there a major change in store for the 2020 Vikings? Zimmer was asked after the game yesterday whether he thought the team needed to do anything drastic coming out of the bye week after a 1-5 start; he said that’s something the Vikings need to figure out during the bye week. After the Vikings gave new three-year deals to Zimmer and Spielman before the start of the season, co-owner Mark Wilf cited the pair’s body of work, specifically their ability to field consistently competitive teams, as the reason for the extensions.

The Wilfs have been patient with Zimmer (now in his seventh season) and Spielman (in his ninth with full control of the roster and his 14th with the team overall), and they’ve appreciated the fact they know what to expect from the group running the team in Minnesota. The Vikings’ recent change on the business side of things (with former Blue Jays executive Andrew Miller replacing Kevin Warren as chief operating officer after Warren became Big Ten commissioner last year) might mean the Wilfs are reticent to alter anything on the football side, and a drastic change after six games would seem out of character after they committed to Spielman, Zimmer and Cousins this offseason.

Firing the coach or GM would also mean severance pay in a year where the Vikings’ revenue will be down without fans in the stands, and the team’s injuries have undoubtedly come up in Zimmer’s and Spielman’s discussions with ownership. Every relationship has a breaking point, though, and after the Vikings fell behind the winless Falcons 23-0 on Sunday, it would be hard for them to continue to point to the close games they’ve played against unbeaten teams like the Titans and Seahawks, as they did last week.

Spielman will likely speak with reporters this week during the team’s bye; his only public comments since Aug. 3 have been an appearance on Sirius XM radio (a NFL rightsholder) and a session with reporters to discuss the Vikings’ two-day shutdown of their facility after the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak. It’s worth watching how the GM frames the first six weeks of the season, knowing his bosses will be listening.

Photo credit: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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