Photo credit: Anthony Soufflé, Star Tribune
Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
There are few tools more useful in the tradition of quarterback mythmaking — that act of casting a passer as some type of John Wayne-esque alpha male who keeps his cool when the stakes are highest — than the game-winning drive.
Joe Montana built his legacy on pristine statistics (11 TDs and zero interceptions in Super Bowls) and tales of his unflappability (as the 49ers were about to begin their game-winning march in Super Bowl XXIII, Montana, as the story goes, famously spotted comedian John Candy in the stands). John Elway’s expansive career — which included three Super Bowl losses in the 1980s before two wins in the 1990s — is often headlined by “The Drive,” the game-tying 98-yard effort he led in the 1986 AFC title game. Eli Manning’s case for a Hall of Fame selection will be built largely on two postseason runs (2007 and 2011) that ended with Super Bowl drives to beat Tom Brady (who came by his first two rings via game-winning field goal drives and his fifth with a comeback to force the first overtime Super Bowl ever). If the most-photographed men on a football team build their legacies one snapshot at a time, game-winning drives provide the indelible moments that follow them forever.
That’s true of Kirk Cousins, too. His famous “You like that!” remark came after he completed nine of 11 passes for 76 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 24 seconds left in Washington’s 31-30 victory over Tampa Bay in 2015, and the overtime drive he led for his first playoff win in January against the Saints. The win helped Cousins squelch one of the most frequently-repeated narratives about him — that he’d never won a playoff game. He repeated his “You like that!” catchphrase for teammates in the locker room after the game, and coach Mike Zimmer dryly referenced it a week ago in Chicago, after congratulating Cousins for ending an 0-9 record on Monday nights with a game-winning drive early in the fourth quarter against the Bears.
Drives like the one against the Saints, which came after Cousins had thrown for only 179 yards without a touchdown in regulation, are profitable, too. When asked about the possibility of signing Cousins to a new deal at the NFL combine — weeks before the Vikings finalized a two-year, $66 million extension with the QB — general manager Rick Spielman referred to the Saints game as a “big signature win,” shortly after he mentioned the 20-point second-half comeback Cousins directed against the Broncos last year. Long ago, the Vikings often cited Christian Ponder’s performance in a win-or-go home season 2012 season finale against the Packers as proof he could take the next step as a quarterback.
But on Sunday, when Patrick Mahomes orchestrated a game-winning 75-yard touchdown drive to beat the Raiders and Aaron Rodgers led a drive for a game-tying field goal around the same time the Vikings went four-and-out to lose to the Cowboys by three, critiques resurfaced about Cousins in the clutch. A day after the Vikings’ third loss by a field goal or less, it’s worth looking at Cousins’ record in high-pressure moments and attempting to put it in context.
We should acknowledge first that last-minute drives — when offenses must abandon the run game and operate with a condensed playbook against a defense that has the clock on its side and can go after the quarterback — are not environments conducive to consistent success. They constitute a relatively small aspect of a quarterback’s body of work, and a larger sample size isn’t necessarily a good thing, since it often means a quarterback is playing for a team that finds itself behind in the closing minutes. It should perhaps come as no surprise that since 2015 (the year Cousins became a full-time starter), the quarterback who has thrown the most passes in the final four minutes of a game where his team trailed by eight points or less is Philip Rivers, with 187 attempts.
But even when measuring a relatively small body of work, the quarterbacks with the best numbers in last-minute situations are the names you’d expect. Mahomes has the NFL’s best passer rating (115.6) of quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least 50 passes since 2015, according to Pro Football Reference. After the retired Andrew Luck comes Ben Roethlisberger (105.0), Drew Brees (97.6), Ryan Tannehill (97.0) and Russell Wilson (93.1). Andy Dalton, who led the Cowboys’ comeback against the Vikings on Sunday, is actually next at 92.9, just in front of Brady at 92.0.
Cousins’ passer rating in such situations — 73.1 — ranks 20th of the 33 quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least 50 passes since 2015. He’s actually just behind Rodgers, who comes in 19th at 75.4, but while Rodgers has built his narrative with 10 fourth-quarter scores or game-winning drives in the final four minutes since 2015, Cousins has only done it six times (to go with two ties).
What makes a player “clutch” is something of a nebulous concept in sports, but last-minute drives frequently reward elements of quarterbacking — namely the ability to operate quickly or improvise on broken plays — that aren’t necessarily Cousins’ strengths. He’s also made no secret of the fact he’s better when he has a complementary running game; last-minute situations often take that option out of his hands.
Even though the Vikings blew a double-digit lead in a 31-30 loss to the Titans in Week 3, the postgame focus was on a failed closing drive that Mike Zimmer called “chaotic.” The coach focused on the Vikings’ defense and penalties on Sunday more than the game-ending four-and-out after a day where Cousins had led the Vikings back from a nine-point halftime deficit with three second-half TD passes.
But the Vikings got the ball back with 1:37 to play on Sunday, needing only a field goal to tie the game with a timeout at their disposal. Cousins looked for Adam Thielen twice on difficult throws after Justin Jefferson’s second-down drop, and was left with a familiar lament.
“Got the completion on first down, second down – didn’t get it,” Cousins said. “Third down, didn’t get the out route to Adam there, either. Fourth down, played off schedule and didn’t get that either, so it was just kind of a couple different plays.”
Here is one other trend to watch from the Vikings’ 31-28 loss to the Cowboys:
Whether Dalvin Cook can keep this up: We raised the point of Cook’s usage rate after Monday’s win over the Bears, but it’s worth bringing up again now that the running back has three games this month where he’s touched the ball more than 30 times. Cook is the only running back in the NFL with three such games this season, and the Vikings have continued to reduce Alexander Mattison’s snap counts after their bye week (he’s played fewer than 10 snaps in three of the past four games, and Ameer Abdullah didn’t see a snap on Sunday). Cook absorbed a pounding on Sunday, and the Vikings’ medical staff took his helmet while examining him on the sideline after a hard hit from Donovan Wilson on his fumble. As offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has said, the Vikings go as Cook goes; they’ve asked him to keep a strenuous pace after the bye week, and could do so for the final six games.
Two areas of concern
Starting field position (and special teams in general): The Vikings started their average drive from their own 24 on Sunday, while the Cowboys started, on average, from their own 38. Dallas recovered two fumbles in Vikings territory, but also got a 20-yard punt return from CeeDee Lamb to start the game-winning drive from its own 39. The Vikings, meanwhile, have 13 punt return yards all season(!) and have the second-worst starting field position in the NFL, while their opponents have the best. Add that to Kris Boyd’s miscues on special teams and the fact the Vikings changed long snappers on Sunday, and the group continues to be a source of irksome mistakes for a head coach who prides himself on having teams that don’t beat themselves.
Red zone defense: It’s fluctuated from being a strength to an issue at times this season, and the fact the Vikings couldn’t hold the Cowboys to field goals loomed large in the defeat on Sunday. Dallas scored on three of its four trips to the red zone, and might have gone four-for-four if it’d had more time at the end of the first half; the Cowboys settled for a 19-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal on second down from the Vikings’ 1 with two seconds left on the clock. The Cowboys had three cracks at the game-winning score from the Vikings’ 2 on Sunday, and got it with the crossing routes teams have used against the Vikings in the red zone for much of the year; tight end Dalton Schultz was wide open on a drag route as the Vikings rushed Anthony Harris off the left side of their formation and CeeDee Lamb’s motion left both Kris Boyd and Harrison Smith covering him. Smith appeared to be pointing to Jeff Gladney to stay on his side of the field, but when Gladney followed Lamb, Smith broke to cover him while Gladney played Amari Cooper’s post route. No one covered Schultz, who scored easily.
Said Zimmer: “Well, we’re in man to man and the guy went in rocket motion and the guy came off of his guy trying to help another guy.”
Guy No. 1 is Lamb. Guy No. 2, presumably is Smith, which would make Guy No. 3 Schultz and Another Guy No. 1 Gladney.
Here’s how Harris explained it on Monday: “They gave us a couple different wrinkles on that play. They had the option to hand it off for a run play with the different motion back and forth. It allows them to do a number of different things and requires us to communicate on both sides, so if you’re starting on the right, you have to have communication there, and as you’re going across to the other side, having communication to the other side as well. So it just requires good communication and being on the same page to execute.”
Two players who stood out
Cousins: This might seem strange given how we began this piece, but it’s warranted: Cousins was pressured on 39 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, but beat a Cowboys blitz for a touchdown throw in the second half, and hit 24 of his 26 passes when he was kept clean. He connected on 20 of his first 23 throws — two were throwaways and one was a go ball he missed to Jefferson at the end of the first half — and nearly pulled out another stirring victory over the Cowboys. The Vikings’ struggles on their final drive were one of several big issues on Sunday, but playing under consistent pressure, the quarterback made some big throws for much of the day.
Eric Kendricks: If it seems like we’re saying it every week, it’s because there continue to be new reasons to list Kendricks here. On Sunday, it was his twisting interception where he took a pass away from Schultz as the Cowboys tried to enter the red zone. It’s the second time in as many home games Kendricks has come up with a pick deep in Vikings territory, and he’s making a strong case for another All-Pro nod after his first one a year ago.
One big question
Is there much hope left for a Vikings playoff spot? They could get to 6-6 win wins over the Panthers and Jaguars in the next two weeks, but Sunday’s loss means they need to win at either Tampa Bay or New Orleans next month to get to nine wins. The watchword for the Vikings, as they’ve tried to put their season back together, has been consistency; they can’t lose to teams like the Falcons and Cowboys and expect to make a run, especially after an 0-3 start. Carolina is coming off a win on Sunday, and will hope to get Christian McCaffrey back (as well as Teddy Bridgewater, who could return from a knee injury in time to face his old team). The Vikings are just about out of margin for error; unless they show they can play effectively without one for a month and a half, it’s tough to envision them reaching the postseason without a lot of help. Had they reached 5-5 yesterday, they would have been in a healthy position to keep winning and let the NFC West teams beat up on one another. But it’s harder to chase those teams from a two-game deficit, since intra-division games between clubs like the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams mean someone is coming out with a win. The Vikings could beat the Panthers, Jaguars, Bears and Lions to get to 8-8; anything more than that requires a win in a tough road game, and without it, the Vikings need a lot of help.