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NFL Draft

Is Kirk Cousins Targeting Adam Thielen Too Much?

  • The Draft Network
  • September 23, 2020
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It was not a great day for Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings this past Sunday, as they fell to the Indianapolis Colts 28-11. In fact, it hasn’t been a good two weeks for the Vikings, as they are now 0-2 and face a mighty uphill climb to potentially reach the postseason in 2020.

Cousins was the big target for criticism after the game. His stat line wasn’t pretty, as it read 11-for-26 for 113 passing yards, no passing touchdowns, and three interceptions. But as we know, the stats don’t always tell the whole story. 

Did the film match?

The first play of the game was a little dump-off pass to wide receiver Adam Thielen—you’re going to read his name a lot, so get used to it.

I liked the design. They got a guy in motion at the snap, going against the flow of the offensive line, and the rest of the offense, and there was plenty of space generated. Even though it went for no gain, I liked it.

Now, the reason it went for no gain is because Colts safety Malik Hooker was keying in on Thielen after Thielen saw a team-high eight targets last week when the Vikings played the Green Bay Packers. It didn’t seem like Cousins trusted many of his receivers outside of Thielen, and it appeared the Colts were well aware of that. That part will come up later in this review.

Right after the initial Thielen pass, the Vikings and Cousins kept their eyes deep down the field. They once again called play-action (which was good) and had Cousins on a naked boot out into space and in unison with Thielen heading to the sideline deep down the field. In rhythm throw and catch at the sideline; vintage Cousins and Thielen.

Good stuff there.

For Thielen’s third target of the opening drive, Cousins looked his way with an empty backfield (so no play-action) but was able to fire a nice pass on a rope close enough in range for Thielen to make a great grab at the sideline.

Three plays to Thielen on the opening drive, which got things going for Minnesota, and though they couldn’t get a touchdown, they were able to add three points early on.

But the reason they didn’t get three points hints at what I believe the issue might be with Cousins and this offense.

Still in that opening drive, it’s 3rd-and-3 for the Vikings at the goal line after two straight runs on first and second down. After motioning a man behind the line of scrimmage, Thielen was alone on the left side of the line of scrimmage with two tight ends on the line, one on each side.

At the snap, Cousins immediately looked Thielen’s way, as he was the primary of the play. The cornerback played close coverage and was able to jam Thielen at the snap, and not only that, the safety was keying in on a quick slant and was in position to jump such a route. So Cousins had to hold his fire on his favorite target.

Up the middle, he had his tight end Irv Smith Jr. wide open on a quick slant. With the safety keying in on Thielen to the outside and with the lone middle linebacker keying in on Kyle Rudolph the other tight end, it should have been an easy toss and score to Smith up the middle. But Cousins’ eyes were fixed on Thielen.

Now, I don’t want to be too hard on this here because Thielen is their best receiver and targeting your best receivers in the red zone is a good business strategy. But part of me wonders if Cousins had the option to really see how the defense was aligned and didn’t really give a toss to Smith up the middle much thought because he himself is too fixed on Thielen. His stat sheet over the last two weeks hints that might be the case. As does his film we’ll get to in a second. That could be a big problem if Cousins doesn’t trust his other passing weapons the way he does Thielen, or even just the way he needs to.

On the next drive, the Vikings started in bad field position. They were very limited in what they could do with play-calling there, and this was sort of the beginning of their offensive line woes, which carried with them throughout the game.

But on the play above they tried to take a shot to get the ball deep out of their own side of the field. Cousins put a pass right in the breadbasket of Rudolph. However, the close coverage and hand contact at the catch yielded an incompletion.

Still, a good toss by Cousins.

On the following drive, with Cousins once again backed up against his own end zone, ended up taking a safety, and boy did it all unravel from there.

This clip above is from the drive that followed the safety. Cousins attempted an out route pass to a receiver not named Thielen, and the placement of the ball was off to the point where Colts linebacker Darius Leonard got his hands on it to bat it away and almost came up with the interception.

It got worse from there.

On 3rd-and-10 with one minute to go in the half, Cousins heaved a deep pass to Thielen to try to force a spark to get into field goal range before the end of the second quarter and it ended very poorly.

Cousins threw yet another interception on the following drive, which was the final drive of the first half, but that was hail mary attempt, so we can’t fault him much for that.

Cousins did not leave his shakiness in the locker room at halftime, though.

After failing to force one to Thielen to start the second half, Cousins threw his third pick of the game off an attempt to his wide receiver Olabisi Johnson on an in-breaking route. In Cousins’ defense, he couldn’t fully lead Johnson into a catch in stride due to the zone defender right in front of him, but that accuracy was still not what it needed to be and Cousins’ day continued to spiral.

After that third interception, Cousins went on to target Thielen four straight times over the next two drives when targeting receivers—he had one short pass to Dalvin Cook in between. By then, he was a broken man.

The Vikings’ awful offensive day is not solely on the shoulders of Cousins. He started off with some nice rhythm throws, and even put a few on the money that were dropped in the first half. But as the offensive line proved to be a liability, and with his back against his own end zone on multiple occasions, Cousins could not rise to the occasion throwing to anyone not named Thielen.

Unfortunately, this Vikings offense feels like it’s completely one-dimensional right now. That’s not all on Cousins, but he has to gain confidence with the rest of his receivers if they want to keep defenses on their heels enough to aid a struggling offensive line.

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