Dropping back with less than a minute to play against the Lions on Sunday, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins expected he might find Adam Thielen open on a deep out route. But he saw K.J. Osborn pulling away from former Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes, raising his hand to call for the ball.
Cousins let the ball fly with a defender converging on him, unsure if he'd put enough on it to lead Osborn to the end zone. "Please be far enough," he said to himself, trying to coax it like a golfer might with an approach shot as the ball traveled through the air.
It landed perfectly in Osborn's arms, for a game-winning touchdown that continued to burnish the receiver's reputation in the Vikings' most important moments.
Osborn, who played his first offensive snaps for the Vikings in 2021, has 60 catches on 96 targets in 20 games since then. Those number pale in comparison, of course, to Justin Jefferson's (126 catches on 196 targets) and lag behind the ones Thielen has posted (80 catches on 114 targets) in 16 games.
But in two-minute situations, when the Vikings' offense becomes more egalitarian, Osborn has thrived. He has 20 catches on 31 targets in those situations since the start of 2021; Jefferson has 19 catches on 32 targets, and Thielen has 16 catches on 22 targets.
Considering that Cousins ranks second in the NFL in completions (77) and attempts (136) while placing third in yards (840) in two-minute situations since the beginning of last year, Osborn's emergence has been critical to the Vikings' performance in those spots.
"So much of a game plan you devise to try to get certain people opportunities, so you move people around to create that," Cousins said. "In the two-minute you sort of have guys in their spots and you don't really move people around, so it ends up being a more organic way of getting people the football, if that makes sense. It just kind of happens, whoever is open. That's what happened last year with K.J. a lot in two-minute: he was now in primary spots, where during the normal game he was in secondary, tertiary spots, if you will.
"So the plays he was making in two-minute last year, I realized, there is a lot more to this guy than maybe we're giving him the [opportunities] to do. When you have Adam, Justin, Dalvin, Alex Mattison, Irv Smith, you don't feel the pressing need maybe to give him those [opportunities], but then in two-minute again today he takes advantage of them and shows up."
Osborn caught a fourth-down pass on the Vikings' game-tying drive in last year's season opener, helping them send the game to overtime in Cincinnati. In Week 6, he caught a 27-yard game-winner in overtime against the Panthers. Sunday, his corner route helped the Vikings take the lead for the first — and only — time in their 28-24 win over the Lions.
"I saw where the nickel [Hughes] was and it looked like he was about to blitz," Osborn said. "I extended him and kept my leverage and then lost him, threw my hands out, and Kirk threw a great ball as always."
One play earlier, Cousins found Osborn for 28 yards on a crossing route after the Lions double-teamed Jefferson. Osborn finished with five catches for 73 yards and Thielen caught six passes for 61 yards and a touchdown, as the Lions focused much of their attention on taking Jefferson out of the game.
"I play with two amazing wide receivers: Adam Thielen with his 50th touchdown reception today, Justin Jefferson, the best in the league," Osborn said. "So, I know they are going to get a lot of double coverage and things like that, that's going to leave me wide open or one on one where I can make a play."
While coach Kevin O'Connell pointed out how much Jefferson impacted the game even though he didn't catch as many passes as the Vikings would like, he added, "That's not good enough.
"I have to do a better job giving Justin different aspects of lining up in different spots, different personnel groupings, whatever I need to do to help him because he's an ultra-competitor, and we'll get him going."
Thanks in part to his work in two-minute situations, though, Osborn has earned Cousins' trust. On Sunday, he came through again in a spot where he's made his mark as much as anyone the Vikings have.
ONE TREND TO WATCH
How the Vikings manage their running backs' workload going forward: Through his first two games under O'Connell, Dalvin Cook's workload didn't look much different than it did during his final three seasons under Mike Zimmer. Cook played 73.2% of the Vikings' offensive snaps through the first two weeks of the season; he logged 20 of the team's 28 rushing attempts in a Week 1 win over the Packers, and had more touches (10) than any player during last Monday's loss to the Eagles. Before he left with a shoulder injury on Sunday, he'd played 44 of the Vikings' 52 snaps. Given his history of dislocated shoulders, though, and that the Vikings have 14 more regular-season games, the team might have to manage Cook's shoulder for a while.
O'Connell said after the game Cook was already declaring himself ready for Sunday's game against the Saints in London, though the coach added the Vikings would make that decision throughout the week once they have a better sense of Cook's recovery. They could have him wear a brace on his shoulder for now; he wore one and played through shoulder injuries in the Vikings' Thursday night win over the Steelers last December and their wild-card playoff victory over the Saints during the 2019 season. It's worth wondering, though, if they will try to use their deep group of running backs (Alexander Mattison, Ty Chandler and Kene Nwangwu) to take a few snaps off Cook's plate in an effort to keep him healthier.
Mattison, who ran seven times for 28 yards on Sunday, was the only Vikings running back to carry the ball other than Cook (who gained 96 yards on 17 attempts). He broke three tackles on a 6-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to pull the Vikings within three.
"That's a man's run," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Eventually, there's an unblocked player; he makes that guy miss, runs through an arm tackle. It's just a big-time run. When you call that run, you're expecting to be third-and-goal from the two. And it's just ... touchdown. That takes so much pressure off of us."
Mattison will be a free agent after the season, and the Vikings got plenty of calls this summer from teams interested in trading for him. He remains on the roster as a complement and insurance policy for Cook, though, and even as Cook prepares to play against the Saints, the Lions game provided a reminder of why Mattison is still here.
ONE AREA OF CONCERN
Vikings' zone coverages: Particularly in the first half, when Jared Goff threw for 179 yards and a touchdown, the Vikings for the second week in a row gave up plenty of space for the opposing quarterback to work underneath their coverages. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, four Lions receivers — Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Amon-Ra St. Brown and T.J. Hockenson — had at least 2.95 yards of separation from the closest defender when Goff targeted them with passes on Sunday (the league average was 2.91 yards). Especially on a day where the Vikings' pass rush had zero sacks and just one quarterback hit, the defense made things a little too easy for the Lions' passing game early.