EAGAN, Minn. — In front of Kirk Cousins’ home, in between a few shrubs, stands a curious tower. No more than four feet tall, it’s filled to the top with stones. Inspired décor? Sort of.
“It’s there to remind me how brief life is, and how important the time we have here is,” the Minnesota Vikings quarterback says.
But … a tower of stones?
Cousins laughs. “Oh, it’s a little morbid,” he admits, “but it’s a tool my Bible teacher taught me in high school, and I’m carrying it with me.”
The stones were inspired by a Bible verse, from the Book of Psalms, first shared with Cousins while attending Holland Christian High School in Holland, Michigan.
Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
“It’s about the importance of leaving a mark and making a deposit in people’s lives in a way that matters,” Cousins says. “In other words, when you have an understanding that life is coming to an end someday, and that we only have so many days? There’s wisdom in that.”
For Cousins, it was important to transform the verse into a visual reminder: 720 stones.
“Let’s say I live to 90, that would be a pretty good run,” he says. “We went month to month, and we added it all up, and it was 720 stones because I turned 30 this year.
“Every month I’m going to take out a stone, put it in my pocket, and think: ‘Once this month is over, this is gone. You can’t get it back, it’s gone for good.'”
The stone for each month represents the amount of time he likely has left, but it also serves as a reminder to Cousins on how he is spending that time, both on and off the field.
“Like everybody else, I am naturally selfish, and so I’m going to think about myself,” he says. “And I think at the end of my life, it’s not going to be about what I did for myself, but what I did for others. Maybe it’s staying after practice to do hand signals with the guys to help them get caught up to speed. To make it about others — I think that’s what leadership is all about, quarterbacking is all about.”
As Cousins removes a stone each month, the feel of it in his palm is a reminder of the time passing. But it’s the questions that come with each stone that perhaps carry more weight.
“What impact are you making, not only today, but for eternity? What impact are you making to leave a legacy?” he says.
“It’s just a healthy reminder, make life about other people, invest in other people, knowing that in the end, that’s a life well-lived,” he says.
EAGAN, Minn. — For all the ways the Minnesota Vikings‘ offense has improved with the addition of Kirk Cousins, there’s one glaring outlier causing concern.
Since becoming a starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins in 2015, Cousins leads the NFL in fumbles with 37, having lost 16, also a league-high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s an issue that’s not just limited to his NFL career. As a senior at Michigan State in 2011, Cousins’ eight fumbles were tied for the second-most in the Big Ten.
Cousins has six fumbles in the Vikings’ past four games, four of which were recovered by the other team. And with every turnover created by a Cousins fumble, Minnesota’s opponent was able to capitalize.
Two first-quarter fumbles recovered by Buffalo allowed the Bills to score on each ensuing drive in their Week 3 27-6 victory. Had Cousins not fumbled at the Rams’ 48-yard line during the two-minute drill during a 38-31 loss to Los Angeles, the Vikings would have had a shot to tie the game. In a Week 6 win over the Cardinals, Cousins was strip-sacked and safety Budda Baker returned it for a touchdown.
“When we talk about how we view quarterbacks, we talk about their touchdown-to-interception ratio, and very rarely do we talk about when guys fumble inside the pocket, which oftentimes is worse because of where the turnover takes place,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck.
Fumbles come with the territory of playing the position. The top-10 list of the NFL’s all-time quarterback leaders in fumbles features league MVPs and Super Bowl champions. Two current players, Eli Manning (119) and Tom Brady (117), rank eighth and ninth, respectively. But Manning is in his 15th season and Brady his 19th.
There’s a story behind every fumble. Sometimes the blame can be pinned on the quarterback for not getting the ball out on time or trying to run with a loose football. There may also be a breakdown along the offensive line or a running back or tight end not holding up in protection. The quarterback could also be holding on to the ball too long because his receiver didn’t get his head around quick enough.
It’s different for each fumble, but it’s an ongoing problem for Cousins.
“I’m concerned about all the fumbles. We’ve got to do a better job,” coach Mike Zimmer said after the Arizona game. “I think the two times, the two that I remember that he fumbled, both times guys were coming from behind him. He’s got to, when he starts moving up in the pocket, he has to be ready to put the ball [away], so we’ll address that.”
What does it mean when a quarterback is a habitual fumbler? Let’s start with something obvious. According to MockDraftable, Cousins’ 97/8 inch hand size puts him in the 70th percentile among all draft-eligible quarterbacks since 1999. So his hand size isn’t likely to be a contributing factor.
Several of the same factors contributed to the fumbles Cousins lost against the Cardinals and the Rams, which boil down to him not responding to pressure off the left edge and not moving up in the pocket despite having the time and space to do so.
Against Los Angeles, the Vikings had just crossed into Rams territory with a fresh set of downs with 1:29 left on the clock. Cousins took a snap out of the shotgun and dropped back deep — so deep that rookie John Franklin-Myers got around left tackle Riley Reiff and tomahawked the ball loose as Cousins drew his right arm back to pass. There was room created for Cousins to climb up in the pocket, which may have helped those in protection, but he did not react fast enough to move up.
Here’s how Cousins explained his fumble against the Rams:
“I’m waiting on my first read,” Cousins said. “Adam Thielen’s my first read, I’m trying to get him the football. I’m not going No. 2, No. 3, I’m seven-step (drop), one hitch, trying to get him the ball. And I did. And before I could get it to him, the ball was out. We’ll go back and say ‘Hey, we don’t want to be any deeper than 9.5 yards in the pocket.’ So any time you’re deeper than 9.5, you’re making it tougher on your tackle to let the pass-rusher run by the pocket.
“So can you shorten up your drop? Again, if you’re at 9.5, then you’re going to say, do your best to get back up to 8.5, but it is what it is … There were many drops throughout the game that I was at 9.5, there were a couple that I was a little bit past but didn’t have a fumble, didn’t get sacked. … No matter the play, stay no deeper than 9.5.”
A quarterback is typically going to sit 9.5 yards deep in the pocket on hard play-action, not dropping back out of the shotgun. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo noted the balance of staying 7.5 yards deep, which helps the quarterback not have to “throw from a foxhole with guys in their lap” and also makes the job easier for the offensive line.
“If you’re 9.5 yards deep, then your tackle has no chance. None,” Hasselbeck said. “But if you’re 9.5 yards deep and a guy is making contact with you and you’re not climbing, to me that’s very fixable. That’s just getting trained to climb in the pocket.”
Fixing his depth in the pocket and being able to push up quicker on the initial climb is one remedy. Another is adjusting the clock in his head of when to escape the pocket before the up-field pass-rusher retraces his steps before trying to make a play.
“I think those are two very correctable things,” Hasselbeck said. “Those are easier than breaking the bad habit of running with one hand on the ball, which is not something Kirk does. He doesn’t escape out of the pocket and drop the ball the way some guys do.”
One of Cousins’ best qualities is his ability to make quick, accurate throws. He has mitigated a handful of issues (i.e. how much time he’s being given to throw) by getting rid of the ball quickly and playing fast.
“I could easily find five plays where I could say there is not a quarterback playing with better anticipation and quite honestly the quarterback play solves a huge mistake by somebody up front,” Hasselbeck said. “I think he’s done that. That’s probably as big of a compliment that you can give a quarterback.”
And even when Cousins is doing everything right by throwing on time, he may still get hit from behind while in the throwing motion. There isn’t much a quarterback can do in that situation, but finding ways to fix what he’s doing when his pocket depth and timing are the root of the fumbles could help Cousins remedy these ongoing problems.
“You can’t give up on plays or get your eyes down at the rush just to avoid fumbles,” Cousins said. “You’ve still got to be a quarterback, and you’ve still got to take your drop, try to step up, try to make plays, be a playmaker. At times you do that, you’re going to risk the occasional fumble. You’ve got to trust protection. You can’t drop back expecting protection to be loose and then you’re never going to be able to play. It’s a balance. When we look back at the fumbles, we’re going to try to really just focus in on the ones that I can control, that are correctable.”
Cook is dealing with a hamstring injury he sustained in overtime of the Vikings’ Week 2 tie at Green Bay. One season after his rookie year was cut short by an ACL injury, Cook has played 10 quarters, rushing 36 times for 98 yards.
The running back was a full participant in practice Wednesday before missing Thursday and Friday’s sessions. This comes after Cook was a late scratch against the Cardinals. The Vikings’ training staff determined he wasn’t ready during pregame warm-ups.
Cook said the injury is tricky and he has to rely more on “feel” than sitting out a specific number of days and expecting to be ready to go.
“It makes it difficult because you never really know,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He comes out and he says ‘Hey, I’m good to go.’ And it’s just kind of how it goes. You have to have versatility in your game plan.”
Latavius Murray , who recorded a career-high 155 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Cardinals, will be the Vikings’ lead back. Murray’s 74 yards after contact were the most by a Vikings running back since Adrian Peterson had 129 against the Raiders in 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Entering Week 6, Minnesota was the last team without a rushing touchdown.
“He’s (Murray) a guy that needs carries and the physicality of things,” Zimmer said. “I like Latavius and the way he approaches the game, and typically he’s not a one-carry-every-quarter guy, he’s a guy that needs to get the football some.”
Murray filled a similar role last season for the Vikings, becoming the team’s lead back in Cook’s absence. Asked whether Cook’s hamstring injury will require rest for an extended period of time, Zimmer said: “I don’t know. I’ll let the medical people handle it.”
EAGAN, Minn. — Around the time of the Minnesota Vikings‘ spring offseason workouts, Kirk Cousins discovered something about his new team that he wasn’t expecting. Despite his veteran quarterback status, the seven-year NFL veteran Cousins figured it would take time before he’d be accepted as a leader. After all, he was joining a team that was coming off a 13-3 season. There were already plenty of leaders in this locker room.
“I was surprised by how much my teammates gave me that license to lead quickly,” Cousins said at the start of training camp. “I thought they were going to want to have me prove myself a little bit longer than maybe I had to. They were very supportive and said, ‘No, man. It’s your show. Let’s go.’”
Cousins’ personality doesn’t always lend itself to him being the most vocal person on the team. At times, he says he’ll speak up and share his opinion if he feels compelled to, but Cousins considers himself more of a “reluctant” leader.
Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, Cousins was given a chance to step outside of his comfort zone. Prior to the Vikings’ rematch of the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a locker room leader and captain, asked Cousins to break down the pregame huddle.
It was a responsibility the Vikings had rotated among several players over the first four games but had often been the job bestowed upon Everson Griffen. The Pro Bowl defensive end excelled in playing off raw emotion and expletive-laden passion to get his guys ready to run through a wall, a la the speech he delivered ahead of the Vikings’ win in Washington last season, a game he missed because of a foot injury.
With Griffen away from the team dealing with issues related to his mental health, the opportunity became Joseph’s. And he passed the baton to Cousins.
“It was important because Linval asked me to, and you don’t say no to Linval,” Cousins said.
Cousins, whose fiery personality is seen often by his teammates but seldom in public, dove into an impassioned pregame speech, emphasizing finishing every block, every tackle, every play, and above all else, the need to “finish the damn game.”
The Vikings beat the defending Super Bowl champions 23-21. The following week against Arizona, all it took was a point from Joseph during warm-ups for Cousins to know his teammates wanted a repeat performance.
This time, the huddle was so fired up from Cousins’ message that they almost didn’t let him finish his final thought.
“Like Dan Gable said,” Cousins yelled, quoting the longtime Iowa wrestling coach, “when I shoot, I score. When you shoot, I score.”
The Vikings brought Cousins to Minnesota to carry this team to new heights as the face of the franchise. Cousins is the focal point of this team, its aspirations and how it will overcome the challenges in its path.
“I think people always look to the quarterback to be the offensive leader and he’s stepped in,” right guard Mike Remmers said. “He’s the kind of guy that you know you can count on to get the job done.”
Cousins is working to become the undeniable leader for a team that hasn’t had a consistent veteran presence at quarterback since the days of Daunte Culpepper, who was drafted by Minnesota 11th overall in 1999 and was with the franchise through the 2005 season.
Since then, the position has lacked stability with eight different starting QBs. The short and uncertain nature of Brett Favre’s time with the Vikings didn’t allow him to fully assume that veteran leadership role. Had he stayed healthy, Teddy Bridgewater, who was universally loved by the coaching staff and locker room, was on his way to assuming that responsibility for the long haul.
“There was a while I thought Teddy was going to be my guy for the rest of my coaching career and he would still be here and I’d be fired,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Then I thought Sam (Bradford) was going to be the guy. Then I thought Case (Keenum) was going to be the guy. In the offseason we did a study on really those four guys. I knew Kirk from playing against him. The thing that I love about this guy is his passion for the game, his intensity that he has. He’s come in here and taken charge as a leader.”
The ability to deliver a great message is just the beginning. Over the course of three seasons (and likely beyond), Cousins’ leadership will be judged by how he handles his team when situations don’t go as planned and the accountability he shoulders, whether the blame is on him or not.
On the field, quarterback leadership is defined in areas like the two-minute drill, where 10 other players know the person under center has the wherewithal to come through in pressure situations. It’s seen in the trust the quarterback has to develop with his playmakers, much like he’s done with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They have to know he’ll go back to them even if they’ve made a mistake (like the confidence Cousins instilled in Laquon Treadwell after multiple drops in Green Bay).
Cousins is growing comfortable as a leader in Minnesota because he’s doing it the way that fits his style. So far, it’s living up to expectations.
“He walks the talk,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He is a guy who is going to go lay it out there, run the ball for a touchdown, dive on third down, stand in the pocket and get hit by 300-pounders. No matter what, the guy gives everything he has. He is the real deal.”
Cook, listed as questionable with a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games in the first five weeks, is still not 100 percent.
After practicing in full on Thursday — the first time he was able to go through an entire session since he injured his left hamstring on Sept. 16 in Green Bay — Cook was back to being limited on Friday.
Cook said Friday that he feels “way better” now compared to where he was nearly a month ago, but he still considers himself “day-to-day.”
“That’s the tricky thing with these hamstrings,” the running back said. “It’s more of a ‘feel’ thing, and I’m just trying to feel through it each and every day.”
After missing the Buffalo game in Week 3, Cook returned on a pitch count against the Rams. He saw the field for 18 plays and took 10 carries a total of 20 yards.
Cook said he did not reinjure his hamstring in Los Angeles, and his absence from practice last week and during Minnesota’s Week 5 win over the Eagles was because he’s still trying “to get where I need to be at.”
In three games, Cook has 36 carries for 98 yards.
Information from ESPN’s Courtney Cronin was used in this report.
EAGAN, Minn. — The National Football League’s annual Crucial Catch campaign aims to bring awareness to early detection and risk reduction efforts for multiple cancers during the month of October.
Ahead of Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi, Mark and Lenny Wilf purchased “Crucial Catch” Nikes for every team staff member, including all front office staff, scouts and coaches.
Each employee was able to choose a shoe color based on one of 11 different cancers the campaign recognizes: navy (colon cancer); pink (breast); teal (cervical); blue (prostate); gold (pediatric); emerald green (liver); white (lung); gray (brain); orange (kidney); purple (pancreatic); and black (melanoma).
The idea was brought to ownership from the Vikings’ social impact department, which aims to promote community engagement through the organization’s philanthropic efforts.
“Every family, including ours, has been touched in some way, directly or indirectly by cancer,” Mark Wilf told ESPN. “It’s the kind of thing where just about everybody has been impacted by it and we just think it’s a great way to connect with the community.”
The entire Wilf family will be wearing purple Nike’s, which represents the fight against pancreatic cancer, but their connection to a Vikings player’s fight against a different form of cancer recently hit close to home.
Ten months ago, Chris Doleman thought his life was over. The eight-time Pro Bowler and former Vikings defensive end was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer that forms tumors on the brain’s supportive tissue.
Once word got out about Doleman’s surgery on Jan. 25, the floodgates opened on social media with words of encouragement from fans across the league. Doleman noted the “amazing” support he received from the Wilf family, who reached out immediately after he was diagnosed.
The Vikings have asked Doleman to sound the Gjallarhorn prior to kickoff on Sunday, uniting his fight with cancer to an afternoon of awareness.
“I have to say it was very hard to talk to him and hear him go through the challenge and tough battle he was going through,” Wilf said. “Getting to know him over the past few years and knowing the blow he received here, but we also know the type of fighter he is, we wanted him to know right off the bat that we’re there to support him and we’re pulling for his fight.”
On Sunday, the Vikings and the NFL will present a check in the amount of $175,000 to the American Cancer Society. The vital funding will help enable hundreds of people in the Twin Cities to obtain access to early detection and screening. Locally, $100,000 will go to Neighborhood Health Source and $75,000 will be donated to United Family Medicine.
The Wilf family’s aim is to connect their entire organization through a disease that affects millions every year. The culmination is a day of awareness surrounding the Vikings’ third home game that started with a gift to each employee to unite an entire organization in the fight against cancer.
“We just want our staff to honor their loved ones, those who have passed and encourage people who are fighting it,” Wilf said. “Different cancers affect people in different ways so this is a way for people to feel even more connected through the campaign in a personal way. Each person can feel they’re bringing the awareness to the public on their own.”
EAGAN, Minn. — Battling through the ups and downs of a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games in the first five weeks, Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook remains focused on getting back to full health.
After practicing in full on Thursday, the first time he was able to go through an entire session since injuring his left hamstring in Green Bay on Sept. 16, Cook was back to being limited on Friday. He is officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Cook says he feels “way better” now compared to where he was nearly a month ago but still considers himself “day-to-day.”
“That’s the tricky thing with these hamstrings,” the running back said. “It’s more of a ‘feel’ thing and I’m just trying to feel through it each and every day.”
The frustrations of coming back from a left ACL tear that cut his rookie season short only to have a new injury in the same leg force him to miss time haven’t caused Cook to lose sight of his goal. Though he aims to add to his 2018 production of 36 carries for 98 yards, Cook believes that if he’s not fully healthy, his impact won’t be as great.
“I think at this point, it’s not a ‘prove’ thing,” Cook said. “We’re winning games and we’re getting better each and every week. It’s just about me getting healthy and going out there and being able to help my team. Going out there 80 percent, 70 percent, I’m not going to be able to help my team like that. We have a bunch of guys at 100 percent that can help my team win football games. At this point, it’s just me getting 100 percent so I can be out there and be who I am so I can be explosive.”
After missing the Buffalo game in Week 3, Cook returned on a pitch count against the Rams. He saw the field for 18 plays and took 10 carries a total of 20 yards. The running back said he did not reinjure his hamstring in Los Angeles and his absence from practice last week and during Minnesota’s Week 5 win over the Eagles is because he’s still trying “to get where I need to be at.”
Cook also noted the “tricky” nature of hamstring injuries due to their ability to linger and the unknown regarding the risk of reinjury. During his sophomore season at Florida State, Cook suffered an injury to the same left hamstring on Oct. 3, 2015. Having dealt with these issues previously has given him the mindset to not rush back or ask too much of himself in practice.
“In practice, I really don’t try to test it out as much because it’s more of a rest thing with hamstrings,” he said. “You try to rest it. When it’s time, I do try to get some game reps in in practice, try to see where I’m at and evaluate myself. I feel way better than I’ve felt.”
Cook is the only player on the Vikings’ injury report whose status is listed as questionable. Minnesota ruled out left tackle Riley Reiff (foot), defensive end Tashawn Bower (ankle), safety Andrew Sendejo (groin) and defensive end Everson Griffen (not injury-related) for the Cardinals game.
EA Sports took notice of Joseph’s run and announced they were boosting his speed rating in Madden NFL 19 by 12 points to an 80, which ties him with Fletcher Cox as the third-fastest defensive tackle in the video game. The only players with a faster speed rating than Joseph are Tyquan Lewis (83) and Ifeadi Odenigbo (82).
“I’m not slow,” Joseph said. “I know I might be big, but I’m really not slow. Even when I ran the 400 and 200 (meter relay in high school), I didn’t get first, but I didn’t get last. I always made points for our team. I like running. Running is fun.”
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Joseph reached a max speed of 18.2 miles per hour on his fumble-return touchdown. To put that into context, Jets safety Marcus Maye reached a max speed of 18.3 miles per hour on his 104-yard interception return that wasn’t a touchdown against the Broncos.
A multisport athlete at Santa Fe (Fla.) High School, Joseph excelled away from football in powerlifting and track and field. His best event was the discus throw and shot put, where he often came away with first place awards; the latter event earned him the title of state champion his senior year.
He also regularly found himself in the winner’s circle of the “Fat Man Relay,” where athletes around his size (roughly 250 to 275 pounds, Joseph said) competed against each other on foot. Even at 315 pounds in high school, Joseph’s athleticism allowed him to outrun those smaller than him.
Following the Vikings’ win, quarterback Kirk Cousins offered up support to get Joseph involved more with the offense. Many of his teammates answered in similar fashion this week. Even Arizona coach Steve Wilks joked that Joseph “looked like a running back or a receiver.”
While Joseph said he’s played tight end and running back before (he scored a 1-yard rushing touchdown at East Carolina in 2009), the chance of him moving over to the other side of the ball on a regular basis is highly unlikely.
But Joseph’s athleticism is undeniable, although he believes he surprised some in the Vikings organization with his speed on the way to the end zone.
“I think I did,” Joseph said. “I think it was pretty good form. It was fun, man. It was a dream come true. I was telling all the guys that in my career, I still have to get an interception, but I want an interception and a touchdown. It was pretty good to catch the ball and show everybody that I’m faster than what I look.”
EAGAN, Minn. — Sustained quarterback success in the NFL is often derived from making plays while under pressure and/or in a less-than-desirable pocket. Whether it’s a weakened offensive line, facing a plethora of elite pass-rushers or seeing pressure frequency rise in correlation with blitzes, a handful of circumstances determine why some quarterbacks are forced to throw under duress more than others.
Production will suffer for some, but in the case of Kirk Cousins, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback is actually seeing his output near its best in the face of constant pressure.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cousins has been pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks through five games, which is the 13th highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks. With pass-rushers breathing down his neck aiming to disrupt the pocket and get home on the quarterback, Cousins has been forced to get rid of the ball quickly. His average time in the pocket is 2.03 seconds this season, which is the fourth fastest in the NFL.
As evidenced by a handful of throws Cousins made in the Vikings win over the Eagles, including the 68-yard pass to Adam Thielen he executed while getting hit at his own 5-yard line, the Minnesota QB has had to rely on the chemistry he has built with his receivers to know that they’re going to be in the spots they’re supposed to, even if he has to throw the ball before they get there.
Cousins’ 64.7 completion percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt under pressure rank second and fifth, respectively. His 51 passing attempts when pressured are the most of any QB without an interception in that situation this season, and he has three touchdowns in those situations.
Throwing from a clean pocket is obviously preferred, but Cousins hasn’t seen that much of a bump in production. His completion percentage is higher (72 percent) when not throwing under duress, and he has thrown seven touchdowns from a clean pocket, but his yards per attempt is lower (7.4) and his two interceptions came when he had more time to throw.
Part of the reason he’s having success is the experience he has gained from these situations. During three years as a starter in Washington, Cousins was pressured on 25.0 percent of his dropbacks. Everything from understanding how to manipulate protections, trusting his receivers to know their route depths, angle and how to create separation to get open quickly helps him beat pressure.
Oftentimes, Cousins says, if more of his offensive personnel are in pass protection, he actually has more vacant space to work with on the back end.
“Sometimes you love seeing pressure, because you say, ‘Now I only have to go against three deep/three under as opposed to three deep/four under, which opens up a zone,” Cousins said. “And if our back, our tight end or our line can pick it up, now I’m free to sit back there and have more space to throw.”
One of the ways Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo helps Cousins mitigate pressure is by utilizing play-action. Moving where the quarterback is in the pocket is the same concept that frustrated the Vikings’ defensive line in establishing a pass-rush against opposing QBs early on. Cousins’ 81.6 completion percentage with play-action passes ranks first in the NFL, and he has been pressured on 38.5 percent of his play-action plays.
“If you do a good job in the running game, you can get some of the underneath guys sucked up a little bit and possibly safeties, depending on coverage and things like that,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It just opens up a lot more areas to manipulate the field.”
Much has been made of the Vikings’ offensive imbalance and Cousins’ pace to throw for 5,402 yards this season. With the run game struggling, the Vikings have leaned on using quick screens to force plays to the perimeter.
“The screen game is huge,” Zimmer said. “You see more and more of it and all around the league now, especially off of play-action, because linebackers start to hopefully get depth and get out of there and then the line has a chance to sift over toward to where they’re in front of the running back.”
It’s also a concept that has helped Cousins when he’s facing more than a four-man rush. The Vikings QB has a 110.9 passer rating when blitzed, which is the seventh-best among all QBs. Knowing how to diagnose these blitzes relies first and foremost on getting the ball out quickly.
“We always talk about, ‘What are you going to do if it’s not there?’ and what’s your answer to get the ball out of your hand if you got fooled?’” Cousins said. “And so that’s very important to know where that element is, and that quick pass, that outlet, to get the ball out of your hands, and some plays have better ones than others, but just always asking yourself that question is very important to stay ahead of what a defense does throw at you.”
A clean pocket is always desired but not always attainable. Moreover, keeping a quarterback upright and limiting the hits he takes each game is part of the process in scheming around pressure. Through five games, Cousins has shown how well he can perform under these circumstances.
PHILADELPHIA — Adam Thielen reached another career milestone in Week 5, becoming the first player in the Super Bowl era to have 100 or more yards receiving in each of his team’s first five games. In a 23-21 win over the Eagles, Thielen caught seven passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, including a 68-yard bomb from quarterback Kirk Cousins that flipped field position for the Vikings at a crucial point in the third quarter.
Yet that achievement pales in comparison to coming through for his team on the most important play of the game.
When the Eagles attempted to get the ball back after capping off a 75-yard drive with a late touchdown to bring Philadelphia within two, it was Thielen who ended up at the bottom of the dog pile upon recovering Jake Elliott‘s onside kick attempt, allowing Minnesota to move into victory formation the next play.
“The good thing is our coaches do a phenomenal job of putting us in good positions and we knew all week he was going to come to my side and we saw plenty of tape,” Thielen said. “He’s a really good onside kicker and he kicked a phenomenal kick. That was one of the nastiest kicks I’d ever seen. It wasn’t easy but we got it done.”
That type of play speaks to Thielen’s impact across the board for the Vikings. Given his workload on offense, the Pro Bowl receiver isn’t often a part of special teams during games but is a constant presence in meetings that don’t require his attendance. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer lauded Thielen this week for the time he puts in to knowing his assignments just in case he’s needed and credited the wide receiver as the best backup long snapper on the team.
So when the Vikings needed to pull out two critical special teams plays late in the fourth quarter (Thielen also fielded a punt at the 11-yard line after the Vikings defense stopped the Eagles at Minnesota’s 45 yard line with 9:17 to play), they knew who to turn to.
“I think his deal is all heart,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Number one, he’s got the biggest heart there is. Number two, he’s always talking about how he can get better. He comes up to me during the week and says ‘I’m doing this and I just need to run, or I need to do this,’ and I said, ‘I’ll remind you,’ and even the long one he caught he said, ‘Man, I’m faster than that. I should have scored on that.’ That’s the kind of guys he is. The onside kick went to him and I told him ‘Catch it the first time next time, would ya?’ He’s a great competitor.”
This isn’t the first time Minnesota has called on Thielen for special teams. During the NFC Wild Card game against Green Bay Packers in Jan. 2016, the Vikings ran a fake punt with Thielen, who took the ball 41 yards to set up a field goal.
Thielen currently leads the NFL with 589 receiving yards through the first five weeks of the season. The chemistry Thielen has built with Cousins is paying early dividends for the Vikings, as is the production Minnesota is also getting from Stefon Diggs.
Cousins was 17-of-21 for 207 yards and a touchdown when targeting both Thielen and Diggs against the Eagles, bringing his completion percentage to 70 percent on the passes that his duo caught for 955 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Both Thielen and Diggs combined for 108 yards after the catch Sunday, their second-most as teammates, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
The competitive fire Thielen displays has taken him from undrafted Division II star to one of the league’s best receivers. It’s an edge Cousins noticed soon after becoming teammates with the 28-year-old receiver and speaks to the impact he’s made for the Vikings on a consistent basis.
“He loves to compete,” Cousins said of Thielen. “He didn’t want to take a day off in OTAs or in training camp. When he isn’t involved in the offense for any amount of time, he gets frustrated because he wants to help the team. As a competitor, he wants to contribute. I am learning more and more about my teammates every week, but you certainly saw that in him from practice since day one.”