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Kirk Cousins has always had hot streaks -- is this one different?
The team says something is different but Cousins has had stretches like this every year. Can the Vikings keep it up?
By Matthew Coller
EAGAN/MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins has a career as an NFL starter because of a hot streak.
After several years of spot starts, Cousins won the starting job in Washington D.C. in 2015 and he nearly lost it quickly. Through the first six games of ‘15, he threw just six touchdowns with eight interceptions and had a miserable 77.4 quarterback rating. Washington lost four of those games and appeared rudderless.
In Week 7, he put together a remarkable comeback against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — best known as the “You Like That” game — in which Cousins went 33-for-40 with 317 yards, three touchdowns and a 124.7 rating.
For the rest of 2015, he played like an MVP. Washington went 6-2 down the stretch and Cousins completed 74% of his passes, threw 19 touchdowns versus just two interceptions and sustained a 126.1 rating.
In the playoffs, his magic ran out and Washington lost 35-18 to Green Bay.
The question going into 2016 was whether he could keep up that top-notch play for the entire season. And by the start of the season, it looked like the answer was going to be yes. In Weeks 2-11 in 2016, Cousins went 6-2-1, tossed 19 TDs to 4 INTs and had a 107.3 rating.
In the final five games, Washington went 2-3 and missed the playoffs, in part because of three games that were rated lower than 80.
Cousins had shorter stretches of hot play in 2017 and 2018 but found his 2015-style blazing heat in 2019. He won the Player of the Month award for October by tearing apart defenses in a 6-1 stretch. The veteran quarterback managed 18 touchdowns, 1 INT and a 126.5 rating to get the Vikings into the playoff race after a underwhelming 2-2 start.
Last year Cousins nearly pushed the Vikings to the postseason with another impeccable run in the middle part of the schedule. From Weeks 7-11, he went 4-1 with a 72% completion, 12 touchdowns, 1 INT and a 124.3 rating.
Long story long, Cousins’s start to the season in which he has a 118.3 rating, 8 TDs, 0 INTs and 74% completion isn’t all that shocking.
Homer Simpson once said, “I can’t live the button-down life like you. I want it all. The terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles.”
Well, there have been plenty of lows and highs but rarely middles.
It this time different?
Mike Zimmer says it is. He’s made reference twice to an uptick in Cousins galvanizing players around him.
Adam Thielen thinks so too.
“Just his attitude, he's just no fear,” Thielen said following Sunday’s 30-17 win over Seattle. “He's not worried about anything other than going out there and doing his job. I think he's a guy who now is able to be in the third year of this system and be around a lot of us players, and he just kinda trusts us and trusts the system.”
So how can we make our best guess at whether the current level of play will sustain — or at least remain high through some of the natural regression?
The case for continuing the hot streak
Since it’s hard to pinpoint the impact of things like fearlessness and interpersonal relationships, let’s focus on more tangible elements of Cousins’s first three games.
The offensive line has been a major issue since Cousins arrived, so this offseason Zimmer wanted to focus on getting better pass blocking from the guard position. While the draft pick of Wyatt Davis didn’t do the trick, moving Oli Udoh from backup tackle to starting guard has been a success thus far. The Vikings are currently ranked as the 16th best pass blocking team by Pro Football Focus and Udoh has only given up four pressures and zero sacks. Brian O’Neill, meanwhile, has not given up a pressure in three games.
Not every pass blocking grade is stellar on the O-line but that hasn’t broken the Vikings’ offense as it has at times in the past. That’s partly because Cousins is getting the ball out faster than ever. Only Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Joe Burrow have faster snap-to-release times than Cousins.
That’s unusual in comparison to his career and a big change from last year. We can tell that the quicker throws are coming from Klint Kubiak’s scheme/playcalling by looking at Cousins’s average depth of target. The Vikings haven’t relied on deep developing routes nearly as much. His aDOT is the second lowest in the NFL this year. Last year it was in the top half of the league. That’s a major change.
Screens have also worked in his favor. The Vikings have the eighth most yards on screens and eighth best yards per attempt.
Solid pass blocking and quicker passes that keep Cousins from getting pressured vastly improve the chances of sustained success. With a clean pocket he currently has a 127.9 QB rating, second in the NFL. Last year he was second behind Aaron Rodgers. In 2019 he was second behind Lamar Jackson.
Under pressure, Cousins averages just 5.3 yards per attempt and he’s only completed about half his passes over the last three years with the defense bearing down.
Because the Vikings have been able to complete quick throws and run successfully the last two weeks, the offensive line has only had 22 “true pass sets” in the last two weeks. Those are defined by passes that do not have play-action, screens or rollouts and take between 2-4 seconds in the pocket. Limiting the number of times the O-line is stressed is key to continuing Cousins’s roll.
The emergence of KJ Osborn as the No. 3 receiver has helped. He’s caught 14 passes on 14 targets for 193 yards. Several of the throws have been on key third and fourth downs where opponents would put most of their attention on Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Through the first three years of Cousins’s time in Minnesota, he’s severely lacked another receiver who can beat man-to-man coverage. Osborn especially showed that on a third down blitz against the Seahawks in which he flew open underneath for a fadeaway Cousins pass.
The combination of better performances from the guard and WR3 positions with a scheme that gives Cousins plenty of quick-game answers gives the Vikings a chance to raise the floor and keep the ceiling high on the offensive production.
The case against continuing the hot streak
Regression, regression, regression, regression, regression.
Cousins currently has career best marks in completion percentage, adjusted yards per attempt, quarterback rating, yards passing per game, QBR, PFF grade and interception percentage.
The last three games he’s produced PFF grades over 80, which happened once last year, once in 2019 and he came close to doing it once in 2015 and 2016. Things change so much from week to week with almost every quarterback that it’s extremely difficult even for the best QBs to produce more than three or four great games in a row, especially with zero turnovers.
Cousins only has two turnover-worthy plays so far. Last year he had 18 over 16 games. Only one season in his career has featured less than double-digit interceptions and his fumble totals as a starter are 9, 9, 13, 9, 10, 9. Neither fumble this year was lost. Had his two fumbles bounced to the opposition, the Arizona and Seattle games might have looked upon a little differently.
The offensive line not only has faced favorable situations with only a handful of true pass sets per game, they’ve also faced unimpressive defenses. Going forward they’ll take on Cleveland and Carolina teams that have gotten off to good starts along with the Steelers, improved Cowboys, 49ers, Bears and both LA clubs.
There are many road blocks ahead and historically the most predictive metric for Cousins’s play has been the quality of defensive competition. Last year the Vikings took on eight of the 10 worst defenses in passer rating allowed (and they smoked Detroit twice) and only saw one of the best 10 defenses against the pass. Over the next 14 games, it stands to reason that they’ll see more stout defenses than Cincinnati, Arizona and Seattle.
There’s also the common sense part of the conversation that Cousins has started 112 NFL games and 42 of them have ended with more than a 110 rating and 26 have finished with below 80 rating. The sample size of rollercoaster-y play can’t be ignored when making the case for an upcoming slowdown.
The bottom line
While there are inevitable things that the Vikings’ quarterback is bound to run into like turnovers, increased pressure and bumps in the road, the offense might be at its best to hold off regression as its been in the four seasons Cousins has been in Minnesota.
Another factor is health. Aside from one missed game from Dalvin Cook, Irv Smith Jr.’s injury and Christian Darrisaw’s slow return from a groin issue, the offense has been at full strength. The starting offensive line has been together from Day 1 of OTAs. The star receivers have been available for every snap. They’ll need that to continue and there’s no way to project injuries. That speaks to the luck factor that goes into every season. Interceptions have to be dropped. Fumbles have to bounce back into Cousins’s hands and defenses need some bad breaks against the Vikings in order for it all to come together. But Cousins would hardly be the first quarterback in his 30s to set career highs, so it remains in the realm of possibility that the Vikings could turn their offensive into a force.