When Kirk Cousins slipped away from Brian Burns' strip sack attempt in the fourth quarter of the Vikings' overtime win over the Panthers this month, the play showcased a moment of mobility for a quarterback who hasn't exactly been known for such things.
But it stood out for two other reasons: It was the only pressure first-round pick Christian Darrisaw gave up in his first NFL start, and one of the few times Cousins was in real danger of being taken down in the backfield. His last throw — a game-winning overtime touchdown to K.J. Osborn — capped what's been a statistical rarity for Cousins in Minnesota: a game where he wasn't sacked.
The Panthers game was just the fifth without a sack in Cousins' 55 starts with the Vikings, and continued an improvement in pass protection that those involved say has been a group effort.
Cousins has been sacked on just 3.6% of his dropbacks, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL and the Vikings' lowest as a team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. In 16 games last year, he was sacked nearly twice as frequently (on 7% of his dropbacks).
"It's a combination of three things," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think, number one, I think the offensive line has done a nice job. Number two, I think he's done a good job of getting the ball out when he needs to. And number three, I think changing up some of the protections that we have been talking about, you know, earlier in the year, we left a tight end on some pass rushers and that didn't turn out so good. Now we've got a couple guys on him sometimes, we move the pocket a little bit. I think all those things become a factor."
Cousins is releasing the ball in an average of 2.64 seconds — the fifth-fastest rate in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — after holding it longer than any QB in the NFL in 2019 and taking the eighth-longest time to throw last year.
He's being pressured nearly as often as he was last year (on 27.6% of his dropbacks compared to 30.2% in 2020, according to Pro Football Reference), but not nearly as many of the pressures have turned into sacks.
"From a play-calling standpoint, we're not trying to put ourselves in a position where we're taking sacks," Cousins said. "And. I think. that's probably the biggest thing. From game to game, play to play, it'll change, but we're aware of trying to avoid them and really, it takes the whole group. I've been in situations where, many times, you look and you say there's nothing I could do but take the sack.
"So you have to kind of coach each situation on its own and then you have to course-correct, like on a bye week and say 'Hey, can we be better in this area?' It'll always be something I'm aware of and sensitive to."
After splitting time with Rashod Hill the previous week against the Lions, Darrisaw made his first NFL start against Carolina and was so quiet — both in terms of how little he said in the huddle and how rarely his play attracted negative attention — that Cousins said he barely noticed the rookie until after Osborn's game-winner.
"He's just kind of there, but he's quiet, he's not saying much, he's just doing his job and not making it about him," Cousins said. "It's funny because the first person I saw after we scored was him and I realized, 'Oh, yeah, he's out here like I hadn't even noticed him all day, which in a way is a good thing, right? Because he's just doing his job, doing a great job, but he's such a calm personality so it's kind of fun.''
Said right tackle Brian O'Neill on Darrisaw: "He's very focused, quiet, but does a great job. He's out there communicating when he has to, talking to me about different looks between drives. I'm really excited for him and happy it went well his first time out there."
Against the Cowboys on Sunday night, the Vikings will face a defense that's tied for the fourth-fewest sacks in the league (with 11) and has a middling pressure rate of 23.8%.
It could be a good opportunity for the Vikings to keep the pocket clean for Cousins again, continuing a trend that's become a pleasant surprise for them this year.
"It's been a good start," O'Neill said. "I think we have a lot of room to grow, just like any other position. We've had a good start, a lot to improve on. Some specific areas we'd like to get better at, but that's the nature of football. You're never as good as you want to be and you're never as good as you can be. But good start, got a lot of work to do."