Kirk Cousins is proving he’s not the same old Kirk Cousins anymore
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images Cousins proved he can overcome his own worst habits with a historic comeback over the Broncos. For his first two quarters against the Broncos, Kirk Cousins was the quarterback who couldn’t lead Washington to a postseason win. For the two that followed, he was the player Minnesota had hoped for when it gave him a fully guaranteed $84 million contract in 2018. Cousins played out all his greatest hits in a stirring come-from-behind win over Denver in Week 11. In the first half, he was efficient in the least effective possible way, firing off on-target short passes that propped up his completion rate but failed to move the chains. Minnesota had seven possessions in the first two quarters; five ended in punts and two were cut short by fumbles. what a day for the Vikings pic.twitter.com/Ho8CTou6WB— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) November 17, 2019 With his team down 20-0 at the half, Cousins adjusted. The MVP candidate played like one. The Broncos spent all their defensive XP on stopping Dalvin Cook, leaving holes through which the Vikings’ passing game could flow. Cousins and head coach Mike Zimmer noticed, and the quarterback’s ability to shift his gameplan (and Denver’s inability to make similar changes) proved to be the difference in a 27-23 Vikings win. Let’s talk about how Minnesota got there, and what that means. The first half was a very Kirk Cousins nightmare An Adam Thielen-less receiving corps was mostly sidelined as Cousins was forced into a buffet of checkdown passes early. Only two of his first 11 passes went to wide receivers. Both were to Olabisi Johnson, and neither gained more than six yards. Minnesota took exactly one shot downfield in the first half, and it didn’t even count. Stefon Diggs had just one target in the first 30 minutes — a 34-yard reception that was wiped out by offensive holding. That was the only Cousins pass in the first two quarters that traveled more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. When Cousins wasn’t dumping the ball off to the fourth option on his receiving tree, he was struggling to identify pressure in the pocket. The Broncos came into Week 11 averaging just 2.1 sacks per game. They got to the Vikings QB three times before the two-minute warning in the first half thanks to a handful of blitzes and cover-zero spreads that overwhelmed the Minnesota offensive line. Broncos coach Vic Fangio’s decision to bring more bodies into the box to crowd the trenches also erased Cook’s impact. The star tailback had gained more rushing yards than anyone else in the league after Week 10, but Denver’s densely packed front limited him to just 26 yards on 11 carries in the game. As long as Cousins couldn’t level up and find openings downfield, the Broncos would thrive. After 30 minutes of game play, the Vikings had completed 10 of their 11 pass attempts, gained 23 net passing yards, and trailed 20-0. Cousins’ patience paid off with easy reads in the second half How did the Vikings will their offense back into this game? After being dared to throw downfield throughout the first half, Cousins finally obliged Fangio’s defense. That 20-point lead validated Denver’s defensive choices early, and Fangio largely stuck to that template. That made some sense early in the third quarter, but was less and less logical against a Vikings offense that would have to throw its way back from a three-possession deficit. It became catastrophic as Cousins became the first quarterback in more than 40 years to lead touchdown drives on each of his second-half possessions to erase a 20-point halftime deficit. Cousins was masterful as he adjusted to Denver’s pressure and found holes in the Broncos’ deficient over-the-top safety coverage late in the game. His first big play of the game was a 44-yard strike to Diggs that saw the Pro Bowl wideout break free from man coverage when safety Justin Simmons was too late to provide backup. Two plays later, Minnesota spread out its route tree to find single coverage again — this time coming up with the first touchdown of rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr.’s career: .@swervinirvin_ puts us on the board with his 1st career TD. #Skol pic.twitter.com/pH1FaFX5AN— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 17, 2019 This was just the beginning of Cousins’ quest to run Denver’s soft safety help ragged. Two drives later, he’d find Diggs behind the last layer of the Broncos’ defense once more and place another perfect ball for a touchdown that made this a one-possession game. An absolute bomb to @stefondiggs!!! pic.twitter.com/l2TtJHjpAE— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 17, 2019 This was becoming a trend for Cousins. But while his adjustments were altering the course of the game, Fangio’s Bronco defense made few significant changes of its own. That commitment to stopping the run remained. While that worked in fits and spells, it also created massive opportunities for big gains elsewhere. Here’s the touchdown pass that finally erased the 20-0 deficit the Vikings spotted their opponent. Denver, still focused on stopping Cook, shifts hard to its left and sells out against the threat of the run. Kyle Rudolph cuts against the grain leaving no one within five yards of him at any point for the rest of the 32-yard scoring play. #Vikings actually did it. Kyle Rudolph was left wide open and they're up. From down 20-0 to up 27-23. Amazing.pic.twitter.com/wxt0anmMbS— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 17, 2019 Four drives, three touchdown passes, one touchdown run from Cook, and one win, all predicated on Cousins remembering he can throw a pretty deep ball against single coverage. Now the Vikings are 8-3 and avoided an embarrassing home loss to an underdog whose quarterback was making just the second start of his pro career. Cousins was two entirely different quarterbacks Sunday. The first was the guy you’re probably thinking of when you hear the name Kirk Cousins — the same player who couldn’t make Washington relevant and who struggled as Minnesota failed to make the playoffs last year and got off to a 2-2 start in 2019. The second player was the one who has emerged as an MVP candidate in the midst of a 6-1 run while recording an 18:1 TD:INT ratio and 126.9 passer rating. Cousins didn’t have an official pass that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage in a zero-point first half. He went 7-of-10 with three touchdowns in those situations after halftime. That first half QB is the kind of player who racks up meaningless Pro Bowl invitations. The second is the kind of player who turns those invitations down because he’s focusing on a Super Bowl. Minnesota won’t be able to shake off a start that bad against a better opponent than the Broncos — and there are a lot of those in the NFL. Cousins did a great job of adjusting his gameplan at halftime and then making the correct reads and throws downfield. He proved he can guide his team to victory when Cook is bottled up. Now he’ll have to prove he can do it for more than two quarters at a time.
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