Vikings insider Ben Goessling
The Vikings' belief they could maintain their passing game productivity after dealing Stefon Diggs to Buffalo this spring was based on two factors: the idea Adam Thielen would return to his typical productivity in 2020 after recovering from last season's hamstring injury, and the notion they could get big contributions from a cast of young players (rookie Justin Jefferson and second-year players Irv Smith and Bisi Johnson among them).
Two games is far too small a sample size to quash that theory. The Vikings' commitment to their current offensive direction seemed to make Diggs a "programmatic non-fit," to use the phrase Brad Childress coined after parting with another mercurial receiver. And Jefferson in particular could provide a boost to the Vikings' passing game if he's able to build a connection with Cousins going forward.
But on the day Diggs had his first big performance for the Bills, catching eight passes for 153 yards and a touchdown in Buffalo's shootout victory over the Dolphins, his absence from the Vikings offense seemed particularly pronounced.
Cousins' 15.9 passer rating was the third-worst since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger by a Vikings quarterback who threw 20 or more passes. He targeted Thielen on eight of his 26 passes, completing three on the Vikings' opening drive but failing to hit Thielen the rest of the day.
Cousins completed only three other passes to his receivers in the first three quarters of the game. Through two weeks, Thielen has 16 targets on Cousins' 51 passes; no other Vikings player has more than seven.
On Sunday, Smith officially had four targets. It was fortuitous he dropped his first one, on a pass that likely would have lost yardage, but his second would have gone for 21 yards had Smith been able to hold on after getting open on a post route and making a leaping grab over the middle. Darius Leonard nearly picked Cousins off on the following play when the quarterback threw to Smith's inside shoulder on an out route.
Smith finished with one catch for 3 yards and also committed a pass interference penalty that wiped out another first-down catch.
Cousins' third interception was on a pass behind Johnson on a slant, and the receiver's only catch was a 24-yard grab when the game was decided in the fourth quarter.
Jefferson finished with three catches for 44 yards; the first was a 22-yard grab in the first half, and the other two came in the fourth quarter.
During an interview before the season about building a rapport with his new receivers, Cousins said the elements of the passing game that rely more on timing and precision — such as intermediate throws — take more time to develop than downfield throws where the quarterback can just give his receivers a chance to beat their man. Some of the issues on Sunday, like the interception to Johnson, appeared to be partly related to execution, and particularly when it came to Smith, dropped passes made things worse than they needed to be.
"We have to be consistent with our level of play, and the first thing you have to do is look yourself in the mirror," Thielen said Monday. "You have to say, 'What could I have done better to be more consistent and make plays and take pressure off of Kirk and this offense and be able to stay on the field?' That creates more opportunities to stay on the field and make explosive plays and score points, things like that. Like I said, there's obviously a lot of things. But the first it starts with consistency and your level of play."
It's worth wondering how much Cousins trusts anybody but Thielen right now, and how much that might be affecting his execution. In any case, if the Vikings continue to struggle to develop options outside of Thielen, they are going to see teams continue to roll coverage his way.
"I think that's probably the reason why it's so frustrating," Thielen said. "We have so many guys that have experience, that are really good football players. We have a lot of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, and we have a quarterback that has proven he can play at a high level in this league, so now we have to do our part individually to make sure that we're helping this team create momentum, stay on the field and make plays.
"Is it frustrating? Yes, 100 percent, when you have a veteran group and have a lot of leaders on the offensive side of the ball and a lot of guys you look to that can make plays, so I think that's probably the good thing moving forward: 'Hey, we have the pieces. Now let's go do it.'"
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib