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Getting the Most from Kirk Cousins and the Vikings Offense

Some things John DeFilippo may do to improve the Vikings O

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Washington Redskins Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings made a big investment in Kirk Cousins this off-season, and also changed offensive coordinators, picking Eagles’ QB coach John DeFilippo to replace Pat Shurmur.

DeFilippo is credited most recently with helping Carson Wentz improve significantly in his second year, and has been coaching quarterbacks in various coaching jobs since 2000. He was also briefly the offensive coordinator for the Browns during the even briefer Manziel-era.

DeFilippo shares more than a brief stint in the Factory of Sadness with his predecessor, Pat Shurmur. Both came to the Vikings from Philadelphia, both use a west-coast based offense, and both have a player-focus when it comes to implementing scheme and play-design.

All that suggests there will be a lot of carry-over between Shurmur’s offense and DeFilippo’s. But with Cousins at the helm, rather than Case Keenum or Sam Bradford, there could be some changes as well.

Let’s take a deeper look.

Start with What Players Do Well

John DeFilippo and Pat Shurmur take a similar approach to designing their offense by tailoring it to what their players do well. Taking that approach has allowed both coaches to make adjustments to their play design and calls after their starting quarterbacks went down last year, and continue with great success.

Undoubtedly that process has already started with DeFilippo both analyzing and talking to Kirk Cousins to find out what he does best, plays he likes, etc. Cousins is not Carson Wentz, or Case Keenum, or Sam Bradford, so tailoring the Vikings existing scheme and plays, as modified by DeFilippo, to suit Cousins’ strengths will be the new Vikings offensive coordinator’s first priority.

So What Does Kirk Cousins Do Well?

Cousins has been a starter for the past three seasons, so he’s got a track record to break down and analyze. Here are a few things he does relatively well:

  • Play-action passing. Had a 118.7 passer rating with play-action, 87.4 without it.
  • Throwing Corner, Go, and shallow Crossing routes. Last year he had a 141.4, 97.9, and 101.4 passer rating on those routes last year, respectively.
  • Deep passing (20+ yards) (106.4 rating) and passes behind the line-of-scrimmage (109.5 passer rating).

Looking at what Washington ran last year, there is an opportunity to do more of what Cousins does best in Minnesota. For example:

  • Despite the large difference in passer rating when play-action is involved, the Redskins only ran play-action on about 21% of pass attempts last year- about average. Last year the Vikings ran play-action on almost 29% of pass attempts- 2nd highest in the league- according to PFF. Undoubtedly use of play-action can depend on game situation factors like down and distance, but finding ways to encorporate more play-action passing with Cousins - perhaps to similar levels as last year- could see a marginal increase in Cousins’ overall passer rating and effectiveness. Having Dalvin Cook in the backfield should help defenses honor that threat.
  • Cousins’ best route, in terms of best passer rating when thrown to, was a deep corner route. His passer rating was 141.3 when throwing to that route last year. And yet only 3% of his passes were thrown to deep corner routes. Coincidentally, when Stefon Diggs was targeted on deep corner routes last year, it resulted in a perfect 158.3 passer rating - highest in the league. Perhaps something can be figured out here.
  • Cousins had some success throwing to hitch routes on 3rd down (108.5 passer rating) last year, which was also Adam Thielen’s best route last year, achieving a 121.5 passer rating on those routes.
  • Cousins also did relatively well (101.4 passer rating) throwing Crossing routes last year, something Diggs also was successful with, achieving a 114.3 passer rating last year when targeted on Crossing routes.
  • While neither Diggs or Theilen were among the top receivers on Go routes last year, a periennial favorite route Cousins likes to throw to (12% of attempts last year, 2nd to hitch routes) and which he achieves a consistently higher passer rating (97.9 last year), Thielen was good for a 142.8 passer rating on Go routes two years ago, with Sam Bradford at the other end of the throws.

Cousins will also be helped generally by a wide receiver duo that had higher contested catches rates, lower drop rates, and higher yards per route ran than was the case last year with his top two receivers in Washington.

What Kirk Cousins Doesn’t Do So Well

While there are other routes Cousins has struggled more throwing to (slants, in-routes, posts), including intermediate (0-9 yard) throws generally, there are five basic areas where Cousins will need to improve over recent years if the Vikings offense is to improve. They include:

  • Red zone.
  • Third down.
  • Under Pressure.
  • Turnovers / ball security.
  • Ball placement accuracy.

These are all the most critical areas where a team and offense look to a QB to deliver. Cousins has struggled to varying degrees in each of them in the past. Whereas he’s been average over his career on 3rd down passer rating and under pressure, he’s been below average in the red zone. He’s had turnover issues (both interceptions and fumbles) that have haunted him, and he was below average last year in ball placement accuracy at all depth levels.

Most of the issues Cousins has struggled with are encapsulated in his first several pass attempts to start the season last year against the Eagles, shown below:

A couple completions, a couple passes thrown high and off the hands of the receiver, an overthrow deep, an under-thrown ball over the middle, a should’ve been pick six on a bad decision throw on 3rd down, and a strip fumble.

This is where QB coach John DeFilippo, along with actual QB coach Kevin Stefanski, need to work with Cousins to make improvements. Additionally, the team focus for the Vikings last off-season on red zone and 3rd down situational football paid handsome dividends for the Vikings last season. That may need to continue this off-season with Cousins, to help him improve in these two most critical areas of situational football.

DeFilippo coached Carson Wentz to massive improvements in these key areas from his rookie to second year. Wentz was one of the absolute worst QBs in the league his rookie year when under pressure, with a truly awful 32.8 passer rating. Last year that improved to 81.7 - well above average. Similarly, Wentz’s 3rd down passer rating went from 67.5 to 125.0. And his red zone rating- 90.8 as a rookie (higher than Cousins the past two yeears) - shot up to 116.3 last year- best in the league.

Of course in Wentz’s case you may expect more improvement from a rookie to 2nd year veteran, as a QB settles into the league and gains better understanding, etc. - but seldom is the improvement that dramatic. Cousins isn’t a rookie still learning the ropes, but he may be able to benefit from good coaching at this point in his career- like Case Keenum did. He may also benefit from having a better team around him - as both Sam Bradford and Case Keenum did.

One of the things DeFilippo coached Wentz- which seems to have helped in all areas- was to not be as cautious and be willing to just go out and make plays. As simple as it sounds, with so many reads and moving parts to every play, it can be difficult for a young QB to not second-guess himself - particularly when you’ve thrown 14 INTs as a rookie. Perhaps that helped him overcome the pressure and allow him to use his talents without gettting too bogged down.

Watching Kirk Cousins play last year, there is definitely a feeling of a weight on his shoulders at times, and that he was keenly aware the pressure was on him to deliver. And so it was. The Redskins were far from a complete team, and doubtless that put more pressure on Cousins, whether having to make up for a pourous defense, or for diminished talent around him on offense. Game situations were often unfavorable, adding to the difficulty, and morale - both team and Cousins’ it seemed- diminished as the season progressed and the post-season went from tenuous to out-of-reach.

Coming to Minnesota, many of these circumstances have changed - as they did for Case Keenum last year. It may be that with a more complete team around him, Cousins will have less pressure on him and better circumstances to make plays.

I would be surprised if Mike Zimmer, John DeFilippo and QB coach Kevin Stefanski did not all emphasize ball security the entire off-season with Cousins, practicing getting two hands on the ball when the hit is coming, and throwing the ball away, rather than forcing it, if there’s nothing there.

Play-Calling Will be Key

Looking at Cousins’ tape over the past couple years, it seems that Cousins likes to throw the deep ball, and is more comfortable throwing deep than he is with intermediate routes, particularly in the middle of the field. Plays like this one against the Vikings two years ago show Cousins at his best:

This play was used with great success many times- faking what looks like a zone run, and rolling out the other way for a deeper pass.

And when a defensive secondary is out-matched, and Cousins has the time, as was the case against the Packers in 2016, Cousins will make you pay:

But he does struggle with many of the mainstay routes in a west-coast offense, and the rhythm and timing that go along with it, particularly in the middle of the field:

Most of Cousins’ interceptions were on intermediate throws over the middle last year, and in previous years too. Often he simply holds the ball too long and telegraphs the throw. In any case, he often has difficulty establishing the rhythm and timing of these bread-and-butter, west-coast-offense throws. He’s better with dump-offs and screens, but with these short slants, hitches, in and crossing routes over the middle, he’s had a lot of difficulty. Short out routes as well haven’t been his best route to throw to.

Given all that, designing plays and route combinations more suitable to Cousins strengths may help eliminate some of these miscues. Of course it’s not possible to eliminate them completely, and perhaps Cousins, with a change of scenery, will develop a better feel for these routes and enjoy greater success. But it would make sense to address what the issue(s) are with these routes and either coach Cousins into throwing them better and/or reducing them in the playbook.

Get the Ball Out or Go Deep or Throw It Away

The past two years, Kirk Cousins has ranked 3rd and 4th best in deep (20+ air yards) passer rating. And yet the percentage of deep ball passes declined from 13.5% in 2016 to 12.2% in 2017. Some of that may have been to the Redskins beat-up offensive line, but not necessarily. More likely may have been the loss of better deep ball receivers like DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

In any case, increasing the percentage of deep ball attempts may also help Cousins overall numbers with the Vikings. Carson Wentz last year, as a loose reference to DeFilippo’s offensive ideas, threw deep on 14.8% of his attempts - 4th highest in the league - and up from 10.5% his rookie year. Perhaps DeFilippo has similar intentions for Cousins.

The other aspect of the passing game, when not throwing deep, is to get the all out quickly. Most QBs have higher passer ratings when they get the ball out in under 2.6 seconds. In a west-coast offense, the the timing and rhythm of most dropbacks and route patterns are designed around this. If a QB holds the ball too long, the timing of the throw is off, and throwing lanes and windows can be disrupted as well, leading to a broken play or an improvised one - often with less success. Working on these timing issues should help Cousins improve throwing to these types of routes.

Lastly, one thing I’ve noticed watching Cousins tape over the past couple years: he’s not one to throw the ball away much when nothing is there. Very seldom have I noticed him do this. And certainly there were occasions when that would have been a better play. Coaching that aspect of the game, and awareness of the game situation could also help Cousins avoid some negative plays.

Get the Ball to Your Playmakers

The bottom line for Cousins, and what may help him improve the most over his performance in Washington, is the Vikings ability to take some of the pressure off of him. With a top defense and loaded skill position groups on offense, the message to Cousins should be a simple one: get the ball to your play-makers. That message may help take some pressure off of Cousins as in the past he put more of it on himself to make plays, rather than letting them happen by distributing the ball to his play-makers. Knowing there are other players on the team that can deliver in the clutch may help Cousins take a more deliberate approach at times - instead of forcing a ball - and allow him to be more effective in pressure situations - 3rd down, red zone, big games - than he has been in the past.

But at the end of the day, after optimizing scheme and plays to suit Cousins, working on the issues that have plagued him in the past, and surrounding him with a better team, there will still be moments when he needs to step-up and deliver in big games, against very good opponents. And the Vikings will have plenty of those this season.

How well he will do so is the $84 million question.