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Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook Carry Vikings Past Lions: Game Notes

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Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Vikings offense was called upon to fuel a road victory in the Motor City, and it hit on all cylinders en route to a 42-30 victory on a day the Vikings defensive secondary struggled most of the day.

Offense Hitting on All Cylinders

The Vikings offense had 166 yards rushing and 337 yards passing for 503 total yards- and 42 points. Both season highs. Kirk Cousins went 24/34 for 337 yards, 4TDs, and a 141.4 passer rating.

Dalvin Cook had 25 carries for 142 yards - a 5.7 yard average- and 2 TDs.

The Vikings top receiver Adam Thielen went down after an excellent TD throw and catch with a hamstring injury in the first half. No matter. The Vikings had no shortage of receivers getting open and making catches, including Thielen’s rookie replacement Olabisi Johnson, who filled in nicely with 4 catches for 40 yards.

Stefon Diggs led all receivers with 7 catches for 142 yards, but dropped another excellent would-be TD throw. Cousins spread the ball around, allowing a couple TEs - Irv Smith Jr. and Kyle Rudolph - to each have five receptions for 60 and 58 yards respectively.

With all the skill position players putting up big stats, it’s easy to look past where it all started: a strong performance from the Vikings offensive line.

Offensive Line Continues to Improve

The Vikings offensive line did not allow a sack all game. At least as important, they gave Kirk Cousins a clean pocket much of the afternoon. At the same time, they did a good job opening some creases for Dalvin Cook to exploit.

On the day, the offensive line was responsible for just 8 pressures (1 QB hit and 7 hurries), while Tyler Conklin was responsible for a hit and hurry as well. But all tolled, Kirk Cousins was pressured on just 10 of his 34 drop backs, or 29.4% of the total. That’s down from 50% week 4 against the Bears, and has been about the same (or better) the past three weeks in which Cousins has turned in historic passing numbers.

Cousins’ improvement can be tied directly to his being less pressured on his drop backs. Here is a quick season summary, with % of drop backs under pressure, followed by passer rating:

W1 - Falcons: 36.3% | 140.8 (only 10 drop backs)

W2 - Packers: 62.9% | 53.3

W3 - Raiders: 26.1% | 112.0

W4 - Bears: 50.0% | 91.6

W5 - Giants: 19.4% | 138.6

W6 - Eagles: 29.0% | 138.4

W7 - Lions: 29.4% | 141.4

We all want to lionize quarterbacks for their skill in delivering wins for their team, but the truth is they can’t do it if they’re under pressure 40% of the time or more. The perennial top QBs in the league like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Drew Brees are all under pressure less than 30% of their drop backs. And when Cousins enjoys that level of protection, guess what - his play rises to their level. See below.

Moreover, as the season progresses the Vikings offense line has improved as far as avoiding the more egregious snap losses, and doing a better job of giving the skill guys a chance to make plays. After all, if this offensive line has both the highest passer rating QB, and the league’s leading rusher, it couldn’t be that bad, right?

In fact, with those stats behind it, the Vikings offensive line may be going from underperforming, to underrated. Detroit has a number of very good defensive linemen, from Trey Flowers to Snacks Harrison to A’Shawn Robinson. They were all kept at bay Sunday afternoon, combining for just five tackles and one assist.

Defense Doesn’t Get It Done

As well as the Vikings offense played, this was probably the worst outing of the season for the Vikings defense. The defense gave up 433 net yards, including 364 passing yards, and 30 points - the most allowed this season.

The Vikings secondary was victimized early and often by the Lions offense, and also allowed the Lions to go a perfect 4 of 4 in the red zone, which is emerging as something of a weak spot for the Vikings defense. Particularly against division rivals. The Lions and Packers are a combined 7/7 in the red zone against the Vikings. Only the poor Bears offense is 1 for 4 in the red zone against the Vikings. Definitely an area for improvement.

The Vikings defensive secondary struggled in coverage much of the day, failing to break-up contested catches and allowing the occasional wide open receiver to gouge them. The Vikings DBs clearly had trouble with the bigger Lions receivers, and in addition to the receiving yardage, had a number of penalties in coverage as well.

Mike Zimmer took the blame for not dialing up the right coverages, but that was only part of the problem. The Vikings DBs need to do better in contested ball situations, while the Vikings pass rush could have done a better job getting to Stafford.

As has been the case in the past when the Vikings defense hasn’t done as well, Zimmer wasn’t as aggressive in his play calls. Too much soft and/or zone coverage, combined with not bringing enough pressure, gave Stafford and the Lions offense too many opportunities to make plays. And they did.

PFF Individual Grades

Adam Thielen and Kirk Cousins led the offense with elite grades - 92.6 and 92.4 respectively. They were followed by Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook, CJ Ham, Stefon Diggs, and Olabisi Johnson.

Defensively, Eric Kendricks led the way again with an elite 90.2 grade. He was followed by Eric Wilson, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph.

On the bottom end defensively, it should be a surprise that all the defensive backs were on the bottom half of the list.

Cook and Cousins Cream of the Crop

Heading into Sunday night football, the Minnesota Vikings are owners of a couple top skill position players on the season.

First, Dalvin Cook leads the league in rushing yards, with 725. He’s also best among the top contenders with a 5.5 yards per carry average.

Second, $84 million Kirk Cousins has the highest passer rating (114.3) in the NFL among QBs with more than a handful of passing attempts. That means his passer rating is higher than Russell Wilson (114.1) Patrick Mahomes (113.1), Aaron Rodgers (103.7), and Tom Brady (97.5). All those QBs, with the exception of Cousins, have been mentioned as possible MVP candidates.

And while the Vikings have been near the bottom of the league in passing attempts, they lead the league in yards per passing attempt, at 9.1. That pairs nicely with the Vikings 4th ranked yards per rush attempt (5.0), giving them the 3rd ranked offense in yards per play overall.

Vikings Proving To Be Among the Most Versatile, Balanced, Formidable

The Vikings offense is currently 6th in both yards and points. Moreover, it is best in yards per passing attempt and 4th in yards per rush attempt. It has won games with a strong rushing game, and others with a strong passing game. And also with a balanced attack.

The Vikings defense is currently 6th in points allowed, and 5th in yards allowed, which keeps the Vikings in every game. And gives the offense the chance to win.

All this suggests that the Vikings are succeeding in what the coaching staff talked so much about during the off-season: playing complimentary football.

They are also the 2nd highest graded team in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

That combination, combined with better game plans from the coaching staff, have allowed the Vikings to start stacking wins since the season nadir at Chicago, moving from 2-2 to 5-2, and drawing more comparisons to the 2017 Vikings in the process.

But there is no shortage of pretty formidable teams in the NFC at the moment. The Saints, 49ers, and despite their loss to the Ravens, the Seahawks are all looking pretty tough. The Packers are playing well too, but a closer look suggests their record is better than their performance relative to other contenders. But it may well be the Packers re-match at US Bank stadium before Christmas that proves decisive in the division race..

But next up are the 1-6 Redskins, who travel to US Bank stadium on a short week. It’s a Thursday night prime time matchup which includes the return of former Vikings Case Keenum and Adrian Peterson to Minnesota.

Official NFL Game Summary

The official NFL game summary is available here.

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Kirk Cousins leads the league in passer rating. Does that make him an MVP candidate?

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