Kirk Cousins is not throwing play-action passes more or less than he did during his three-year run as starter in Washington, where he ranked as the No. 1 (2015) and No. 2 (2017) play-action passers by rating.
But perhaps it’s time to put Cousins under center even more with the Vikings’ change at offensive coordinator this week, firing John DeFilippo and promoting quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, whom Pat Shurmur wanted as his Giants coordinator last spring.
Coaches can’t change everything in Week 15, but what they can do theoretically is go back to some basic principles that led to last year’s success under Shurmur and quarterback Case Keenum.
Leader among those principles, in the passing game, was Keenum’s prolific throwing after faking a handoff. The Vikings had Keenum running play-action passes on nearly 29 percent of attempts, which ranked as 2017’s most behind only L.A.’s Jared Goff, according to Pro Football Focus.
It worked. Keenum’s 111.8 passer rating off play-action throws was the NFL’s fourth-best mark, behind just Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford and…. Cousins (118.7) in Washington.
A possible problem: Cousins has been the NFL’s highest-volume passer this season, but just 18.6 percent of those attempts are derived from play-action. Only five quarterbacks are executing play-action less: Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston and Ben Roethlisberger.
Maybe one of DeFilippo’s biggest gaffes as Vikings play caller was how often he diverted from play-action passes in recent losses. Cousins was pinned back in shotgun formation and floundered in games at Chicago and New England, where he attempted just a combined 10 play-action throws on 80 attempts (12.5%).
1. Pressure report: This starts with the Vikings’ porous protection. Play-action designs were a reason Keenum was sacked just 22 times last year, compared to Cousins’ 32 sacks despite similar pressure rates (both hover around 39 percent pressured). More bootlegs and rollouts can move Cousins away from the pass rush in similar ways that frustrated the Vikings defensive line during the hapless September night in Los Angeles.
2. The cliche of ‘establishing the run’ to set up play-action passes is misguided, and assumes defenders just forgo run responsibilities to defend the pass. (Narrator: They don’t.) Of course, it helps Goff to fake a handoff to Todd Gurley compared to a no-name counterpart. And last year, Keenum was buoyed by a run-first Vikings offense ranking 2nd in carries.
But it’s no secret the 2018 Vikings struggle to run. However, the offense doesn’t need a prolific run game to succeed with play-action passes. Look at Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. All three quarterbacks throw play-action passes to great success (100-plus rating) at above-average rates (top 15 in play-action %) with below-average run usage (bottom 15 in carries per game).
Cousins just did this in Washington, where his offenses ranked 24th, 27th and 14th in runs per game. Yet, he was one of the NFL’s best play-action passers (by rating) in two of those three seasons.
The Vikings trended back to play-action passes in Seattle, where one of Cousins’ only positive throws was his first. This 15-yard strike to receiver Stefon Diggs was the second play of the game during Monday night’s loss. Watch Seahawks linebackers jump forward against that established Vikings run game (eye roll), leaving Diggs with yards around him for the reception.
In Seattle, Cousins attempted his most play-action passes (9) since the Week 7 win in New York. They set him up for success as he connected on 8 of 9 throws for 58 yards, compared to his 50-percent completion rate on all other throws (for 150 yards, TD on 24 attempts).
The play-action rate on Monday night was the Vikings’ highest in a loss since the Week 4 shootout in Los Angeles. So, why didn’t they score more than seven points? We’ll get to that.
But here’s a breakdown of the Vikings’ play-action rates in their wins and losses this season. Take this with a grain of salt, since two-score deficits like the Buffalo (17-0 early) and Chicago (14-0 at halftime) games generally force more spread, air-it-out attempts.
3. Anatomy of a play: The score is 6-0, Seahawks, in the fourth quarter, and Cousins has a couple of open options in the red zone thanks to this play-action design against the Seahawks’ zone coverage.
Watch Adam Thielen lead the misdirection with an underneath route from the run side of the play. On the back side, Diggs runs a corner route that has him wide open in the end zone. With Cousins getting heat from the unblocked Seahawks defensive end, he dumps it down to Thielen for a 7-yard gain to set up 1st-and-goal. In the Vikings’ perfect world, maybe he’s able to see Diggs over the pass rush and throw this touchdown to take a 7-6 lead late in the game. But you can’t complain about a first down in the red zone.
4. The Vikings still need better from Cousins. He was especially off his game when simply dropping back in the shotgun against the Seahawks. On his first 15 dropbacks from shotgun, Cousins completed 7 of 14 throws for 32 yards and took a sack. That’s a horrific 2.3-yard average as he missed open receivers and saw one teammate, tight end Tyler Conklin, drop a pass.
But even with the increased emphasis on play-action in Seattle, Cousins had forgettable moments in these easier setups. Look below at this 2nd-and-3 play that didn’t even gain a first down despite both Diggs (in flat near 23-yard line) and Laquon Treadwell (dig route near 35-yard line) open for bigger gains. Cousins, for some reason, throws this pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the middle for 2 yards.
There were still plays to be made by Cousins without play-action setups, but he missed a few chances. On this 3rd-and-9 play below, Cousins’ pass is low and behind Thielen after a brief hesitation. The Seahawks defensive back jars this ball loose from Thielen’s hands forcing an incompletion.
This is a solid play design by DeFilippo. It’s meant to ease Cousins’ read by only flooding routes to the right side of the field. There are no routes to his left.
Watch both videos, including the pocket view below. Cousins has clean protection, but hesitates on his decision. Perhaps he’s frozen slightly by Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin (defender at bottom of above video), who sits between routes by Thielen and the vertical route by Diggs into the end zone. Cousins threw an interception against the Lions versus a similar coverage when cornerback Darius Slay jumped an out route similar to Thielen’s here.
Cousins’ slight hesitation and poor ball placement forced Thielen to stop his route, setting up Griffin’s pass deflection.