Kirk Cousins isn’t the problem for the Vikings. At the same time, I’m not sure if he’s the solution either. If there’s any concerns about his “clutch”-ness, you can put those to bed. He had a 117.3 QBR in the 4th quarter and was better in the red zone than anywhere else on the field in 2020. While there are some things holding Cousins back from being a truly elite quarterback, he is largely very accurate and technically sound.
Cousins throws with great accuracy and power and most of that comes from having a really consistent base. He can throw guys open and put the ball anywhere he wants to – especially on the short and intermediate throws.
Kirk Cousins is terrific at manipulating the pocket and avoiding pressure in small areas for the Vikings. He consistently keeps his eyes downfield and found ways to get the ball into his receivers’ hands. Some of the small movements in the pocket are really impressive. While he’s not the most athletic guy and won’t threaten you with his legs, he can be tough to nail down in the pocket.
Cousins also does a good job of diagnosing blitzes and understanding what the defense is giving to him. The Bears are running a zero blitz with their defensive tackle dropping into the short middle. Off the snap, Cousins is quickly able to diagnose what’s going on. He sees no deep safeties, the two linebackers blitzing, and knows that there is now nobody covering Dalvin Cook out of the backfield. It might look like it’s just a check-down, but that throw is exactly what the coverage is giving him.
Issues with Anticipation Throws
I think the issues people see in Kirk Cousins in his time with the Vikings is most visible with one thing: his lack of anticipation throws. Cousins really had trouble locking onto receivers and not being able to throw routes with anticipation. It’s a problem, but also, it’s not. Being a see-it-and-throw-it guy is alright. Cousins is a really solid quarterback doing exactly that. Being unable to throw with anticipation, though, is also limiting his ceiling.
Some of these throws are catches and completions and gain nice yards, but pay attention to when he’s throwing these balls. By holding onto the ball until he sees things open, throws can come a beat late. Those windows can close and you can reduce the opportunity for a run after the catch. On this play, the Buccaneers are playing Cover 4. There’s four deep players and the outside linebackers have the flats. All Cousins needs to do here is key the flat defender and throw off of him. If he goes down outside, you throw the slant right behind him. That’s exactly what he does, but Cousins pats the ball and throws it late which creates a collision with the safety when there didn’t need to be one.
Cousins is just flat out a guy that needs to see it open before he throws it. The Lions here are in Cover 1 and there is nobody underneath the out route by Justin Jefferson. Regardless, Cousins still double clutches on the throw and makes sure that Jefferson has cut before he releases the ball.
While he can get away with it sometimes, other times, waiting that extra second closes the window to the throw. The Bears are playing Cover 2 to the top of the screen with the corner staying in the flats and Eddie Jackson trying to get over the top from the middle of the field. Cousins is looking that way and there’s a great opportunity for a hole shot there before the safety gets over. Cousins sees the corner stay short with the out route and needs to throw the ball right away to fit it in. Instead, he waits too long and the hole closes. He ultimately ends up getting strip sacked because of holding onto the ball.
All these small misses, can add up in games which is why he can be a divisive quarterback. His accuracy is great, he’s on target, he can make any throw, but sometimes he just doesn’t get the job done. It’s not because of him cracking under pressure or not being clutch, he’s just a guy that needs to see people open to be able to throw it.
Against Cover 3, Cousins wants to throw the dig in the middle of the field. He’s staring at it, it’s there, but he waits until Jefferson is already out of his break before he thinks about throwing it. By then, the linebacker playing the hook curl has gotten enough depth to dissuade him from throwing it. Now that that defender has cleared though, that opens up the curl outside. Cousins again has a chance to throw this with anticipation. He just saw the linebacker vacate that area which means the curl should be open. Because of that initial hesitation though, the timing is a little off and the receiver has already broken on the curl. That gives the defender time to break on the ball and force the incompletion.
In Cousins’ defense, there were multiple times this year where there were clear busts by the receivers or scheme. Guys are running into each other or are in the same place at the end of their routes. It’s hard to throw with anticipation when you don’t trust your receivers or the scheme. Cousins and the Vikings are going to be on their sixth offensive coordinator in six years now with Kubiak retiring.
As an example, the Vikings are running an RPO here. Cousins is reading that middle defender. As he feeds inside, that means he should throw the RPO. #83 Tyler Conklin does not need to block that man because he is the read guy. However, Conklin messes this up and tries to go get in front of that defender. As a result, he runs into Adam Thielen, the intended receiver. That interferes with the timing of the route and forces the sack.
These kinds of misunderstandings or scheme issues popped up all season. As Cousins is coming out of his run fake here, the Vikings have three receivers within five yards of each other. The Lions could cover them with one defender if they wanted. It’s not polished or good offensive football in the passing game.
Signs of Anticipation
Kirk Cousins did make a few anticipation throws to Adam Thielen who is obviously a guy that has been on the Vikings with Cousins for awhile and whom he trusts. Here against Tampa Bay, Cousins is releasing the ball before Thielen has come out of his break and it’s an easy completion on the sideline.
Offensive Line Issues
On top of the anticipation issues, the Minnesota offensive line was a disaster. Basically the worst formula you could have is a quarterback that doesn’t throw with anticipation and an offensive line that is terrible in the interior. The Vikings’ guard play was absolutely awful all year and routinely gave up pressures on stunts and twists.
Cousins has shown that he can throw with anticipation, he just doesn’t do it consistently. Whether that’s because he’s just flat out not able to do it or because he doesn’t trust his receivers and the scheme, I’m not sure. However, he absolutely can see it and rip it. If you give him space and clear reads, he’ll make the throw almost 100% of the time.
Kirk Cousins has all the tools to get it done with the Vikings. The offensive skill guys are around him to help him succeed. That line is another issue entirely. The Vikings need a couple pieces on defense, but don’t sleep on them in 2021. They had injuries all over their defense with Kendricks, Barr, and Pierce, and had spurts during the season of looking like a really good team. If Cousins can settle in and begin to trust Justin Jefferson and his tight ends, this offense could be top five in the NFL.