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How can the Vikings maximize Kirk Cousins’ talents?

At the NFL Combine, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said that new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo would wait until the team had a quarterback in place before putting the finishing touches on his offense.

“We’re going to try to figure out the quarterback first,” Zimmer said. “And then we’ll adjust the offense. All the offense will have some, regardless of who the quarterback is going to be, is going to have some similarities. Some certain aspects of it that after that – ‘OK this guy doesn’t do this good, let’s throw this out.’”

Well, now that it appears the Vikings have their franchise quarterback in Kirk Cousins, what are some of the things that the Vikings can do to help him succeed?

Let’s have a look…

Personnel

DeFilippo should be taking a page out of Pat Shurmur’s book when it comes to using multiple tight ends on a regular basis.

When two tight ends are in the game, opponents tend to bring a safety into the box or bring in three linebackers out of fear that the offense will run the ball down its throat. As a result – especially if a team has two good tight ends like Cousins has had for stretches in Washing ton – we see defenses struggle against the pass.

In Cousins’ two best seasons (and the seasons we have personnel data for via ESPN splits), he was a far better quarterback with two TEs in the game than with zero or one tight end.

2016
 Personnel CMP ATT YDS CMP% AVG LNG TD INT SACK RAT
0 Tight Ends 127 205 1,547 62 7.55 67 12 3 10 98.6
1 Tight End 181 260 2,029 69.6 7.8 80 8 7 7 91.7
2 Tight Ends 63 86 878 73.3 10.21 70 2 0 2 113.4
3+ Tight Ends 13 20 176 65 8.8 38 2 0 0 126.2
2015
0 Tight Ends 128 181 1,227 70.7 6.78 56 9 4 15 96.6
1 Tight End 178 261 1,934 68.2 7.41 77 11 6 7 94.3
2 Tight Ends 53 72 724 73.6 10.06 78 5 1 4 122.7
3+ Tight Ends 8 14 105 57.1 7.5 21 1 0 0 104.8

That is unlikely to change, especially with the presence of Dalvin Cook.

If opponents bring in extra linebackers or stick with only one deep safety, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are likely to see either cover-3 or man-to-man, essentially giving at least one of the two star receivers one-on-one coverage.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles used Zach Ertz, Trey Burton and Brent Celek on a regular basis. It appears DeFilippo knows the value of using multiple tight ends.

Play-action

Personnel and play-action are tied together. It’s easier to sell a run and get the linebacker to take a step up if the offense is selling a run play with its tight ends.

Over the last three years, Washington coach Jay Gruden has brilliantly used play-action to maximize Cousins’ strengths. He posted numbers at the top of the league in yards per attempt in all three seasons as a starter and saw a big disparity last year between play-action throws and non play-action throws.

Cousins with play-action (2017): 9.4 yards per attempt, 118.7 QB rating (second best in the NFL)

Cousins without play-action (2017): 7.1 yards per attempt. 87.4 QB rating

Every team is going to use play-action when they can, but Gruden dialed it up more often than most coaches. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins operated a ball fake on 21.2 percent of his passes last year. League average is around 18 percent. The highest percentage was the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff, at 28.0 percent.

In general play-action is a smart play. According to a Football Outsiders study, the league averages 7.8 yards per attempt when using it and 6.2 yards per throw otherwise.

But on third downs between 3-10 yards, only three percent of total plays are play-action. That’s one area where Cousins has struggled at times during his career. PFF graded him the 31st best quarterback on third down.

When teams make Cousins sit in the pocket, things can go wrong. According to PFF data, when he held the ball for more than 3.0 seconds (19 percent of throws), Cousins’ passer rating was 77.5.

Finding ways to improve third down success and success without play-action should be on the to-do list for DeFilippo.

Air it out

The Vikings must consider the best and worst of Kirk Cousins

This will come as no surprise: Cousins’ best season came when he had a healthy DeSean Jackson.

In 15 games with Jackson in 2016, the combo connected for 56 passes that averaged 17.9 yards per reception. Fourteen of Jackson’s catches traveled more than 20 yards through the air.

Over the last three seasons, Cousins has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when throwing the ball downfield, posting the sixth best passer rating on throws that traveled more than 15 yards (per Football Reference).

Quarterback Rating 15+ yard throws
Russell Wilson 110.6
Dak Prescott 109.6
Matt Stafford 109.1
Alex Smith 107.7
Sam Bradford 102.9
Kirk Cousins 101.0
Tom Brady 100.3
Derek Carr 99.2
Tyrod Taylor 98.1

According to PFF, his rating this year on throws over 20 yards was 106.2, compared to the league average of 86.2. However, Cousins did have a higher percentage of “turnover-worthy” throws  on deep balls than the league average. Washington used “go” routes often (12 percent of throws) and Cousins had a 97.4 rating on those patterns.

Continue building the offensive line

Cousins’ average depth of throw was only 8.2 yards, which was 28th in the NFL. In 2016, he only threw the ball in under 2.5 seconds 46 percent of the time whereas last year he was required to be quick on 58 percent of his passes.

Every quarterback is better when they have a clean pocket, but it’s noticeable that Cousins was basically the same quarterback in 2016 and 2017 when he had protection and his rating has consistently above average.

Graphic via Pro Football Focus

Focus on red zone performance

Over the last two seasons, Cousins has been underwhelming in the red zone, posting QB ratings of 83.3 and 83.8. PFF lists him as having the fourth most turnover-worthy plays inside the red zone.

Last season, the Eagles (and Vikings) were absolutely brilliant inside the 20. Carson Wentz had a 116.3 rating inside the red zone and had zero turnover-worthy plays.

On a conference call with the Twin Cities media earlier this offseason, DeFilippo talked about his red zone philosophy.

He said:

“We’re going to have a touchdown-check down mentality in the red zone,” he said. “We’re going to throw the ball in the end zone if it’s there and it’s not there we’re going to check the ball down. The two best traits of red zone teams in the National Football League is number one, your ability to run the football in the red zone, because there’s safeties are going to be on you. There’s 22 guys in a tight space. Our backs are going to have to do a great a job of running through the unblocked players and then that’s the nature of NFL red zone football. Is your backs taking on that extra player and making them miss, running them over, whatever you have to do to get in the end zone. And the same time we’re going to have plays where all the quarterbacks feel comfortable with because of certain coverages we’re seeing from team to team to be able to cut the ball loose in tight windows down there.”

Vikings can carry over red zone success under new OC DeFilippo

Re-sign Stefon Diggs to a contract extension 

There is nothing more important to Cousins’ success than keeping his weapons in tact. Diggs is set to be a free agent after the 2018 season and it is imperative that they keep him. While he only had 64 grabs last season, Case Keenum had a 113.0 rating when throwing the ball to Diggs. The Vikings’ former fifth-round pick also led the NFL in contested catches (per NFL NextGen stats and PFF data) and was targeted more than any other Vikings receiver on deep throws.

The bottom line

Kirk Cousins has proven to be a franchise quarterback, but he’s also shown fluctuations in his performance depending on circumstances. The Vikings hired DeFilippo – in part – because of his ability to adapt to Nick Foles after Carson Wentz was lost for the season. Now he will have to adapt to a new skill set and try to limit some of his shortcomings. If the supporting cast holds up, the DeFilippo-Cousins combo has a very high ceiling.





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