Kirk Cousins did it by himself at times on Monday night, in the backfield, at least.
The Vikings offense has the highest under-center rate in the NFL, with Cousins known for leaning on running back Dalvin Cook to uncork deep throws off play action. But Cousins did most of his damage against the Bears’ No. 1 third-down and red-zone defenses from shotgun and without play action, which are the most impressive parts of a strong Monday night from Cousins and coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak stuck to the Vikings offensive identity with fullback C.J. Ham and two tight ends, including Tyler Conklin replacing Irv Smith Jr. (groin), playing key roles on first and second downs. But when they left, and the Vikings spread the teeth of the Bears defensive front on third downs, Cousins really shined. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen diced up Bears cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Jaylon Johnson, and Cousins was there with mostly timely and accurate deliveries.
“He played really fast which is important for him,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He was extremely accurate. He got the ball in the right places all night. I just felt like he did a really good job of handling what the defense was giving us.”
1. Cousins averaged 12.2 yards out of three-receiver sets against the Bears, compared to 5.5 yards on throws out of their bread-and-butter heavy personnel.
The Bears’ defensive approach leaned mostly on two-deep safety coverage shells aimed at taking away the deep ball to Thielen and Jefferson. Chicago’s coaches trusted their defensive front seven to handle Cook; for the most part, they did. So when Cousins found himself in the many second-and-long and third-and-long scenarios, quickly finding the open and underneath option was key.
He knew where to go, too — away from top Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller. On this 2nd-and-8 play in the first quarter, Kubiak throws Chicago a curveball by going two-back personnel, empty backfield and no Cook. Alexander Mattison and Ameer Abdullah are split out wide, with Thielen (#19) and Jefferson in both slots to work mismatches.
Cousins immediately targets Thielen vs. Skrine (#24) in the slot, which was a matchup Thielen won easily throughout the night. He makes the decision quickly, Skrine slips and it’s an easy first down.
2. The Vikings’ efficient quick-passing game helped sustain drives, even if they struggled to score. And they did it out of the bread-and-butter offense, too.
Out of the I-formation and under center, Cousins again quickly targets a desired matchup before the snap on this 2nd-and-9 play. It’s Jefferson (#18) vs. Bears rookie Jaylon Johnson (#33), and it’s a quick out route with a three-step drop. Getting the ball out fast vs. this Bears pass rush is paramount, and Cousins played without the hesitation that has haunted him against Chicago. Kubiak also didn’t ask him to hold onto the ball with few long drops or deep play-action designs.
This second-down call from Kubiak comes out of ’21’ personnel, meaning two backs with fullback C.J. Ham, drawing eyes to Cook. Wider receiver alignments (at the numbers) can also signal an incoming pass to defensive backs, maybe alerting a deep play-action shot. Instead, it’s a quick hitter into the red zone.
3. The slot, and particularly Bears nickel corner Buster Skrine, was a consistent Vikings target when Cousins needed yardage most.
Cousins was hyper efficient on third downs (10 of 11 for 149 yards and two touchdowns), with about half of that production (5 catches, 62 yards and a touchdown) targeting Jefferson, Thielen or receiver Chad Beebe in the slot. It was a go-to matchup Cousins often picked out before the snap.
“Gary deserves a lot of credit for sticking to the game planning. He had a plan all week long of how to attack them on third down,” Cousins said. “If you go back and watch it, I think those plays put us in a great position. And then we had players get separation in man coverage and make plays and find soft spots in the zones. And the protection had to hold up.”
On this third-and-5 play below, Beebe (#12) motions out of the backfield to form an empty, no-back look. It’s three receivers and two tight ends for the Vikings. There’s initial confusion from the Bears on their man-to-man assignments, which continues when Skrine (#24) briefly hesitates as Jefferson (#18) and Beebe run a switch release.
Cousins does not hesitate, knowing he wants to target Jefferson vs. Skrine and throwing with excellent anticipation as Jefferson breaks on the quick out route to the boundary side (ball on right hash mark), meaning there is less room to make this play.
4. The Vikings offensive line held up admirably, even as Cousins got the majority of his throws off in less than 2.5 seconds. The biggest play of the game, the 54-yard catch and run by Jefferson in the third quarter, was a great example.
Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack (#52) moves inside on this third-and-11 play as Chicago runs an interior twist to attack Bradbury and right guard Ezra Cleveland. This is an impressive rep by Bradbury because of how he recovers after getting popped backward by Mack with his feet out of position.
Just as important as Bradbury’s recovery is Cousins not getting spooked by the initial push back, sidestepping that while throwing to the dig route by Jefferson between Bears zones.
5. Justin Jefferson didn’t command the attention he maybe should’ve gotten from the Bears defense. And Cousins took advantage.
Cousins had another relatively quick pre-snap read on this third-and-8 play, especially because the Bears safety help rolls away from the area and there’s a trust developed between Cousins and Jefferson that he can get open quickly in this spot. This is a rookie against rookie, but Jefferson looks like a veteran with this double-move release that ties up the defender’s feet.
“He caught a slant on a third down and long tonight that was out in front of him, not an easy catch,” Cousins said of this play. “He makes that catch look pretty natural. Pretty easy. That’s hard to teach. That’s where you say you can get a guy who’s fast, who’s quick, who’s strong, but is he a natural receiver when the ball is a little bit away from his body? Can he be fluid and go get it?”
Yes, Jefferson can.