December 31, 2018 / 6:32 PM / 2 years ago

Film study: Examining Cousins’ culpability in Minnesota

With a fully guaranteed, $86 million contract, Kirk Cousins will shoulder plenty of blame for the Minnesota Vikings’ failure to make the playoffs, and much of it will be justified.

Dec 30, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks on during the third quarter against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s feeble loss at home to the Chicago Bears dropped Cousins to 4-25 in his career against teams with winning records, and his stat line (20 of 33 for just 132 yards, one TD) was far from inspiring. He misfired on a few deep attempts, failed to spot open receivers and had a would-be pick-six dropped by Prince Amukamara.

But Sunday was also an excellent illustration of what’s wrong with the Vikings outside of Cousins.

As they have most of the season, the woes began up front, where Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks & Co. manhandled Minnesota’s front five. Cousins was sacked four times and hit five others, in addition to several hurried throws, a miraculous escape or two and a few holding penalties. One such penalty remarkably came with the Vikings using eight men in protection — two released after chipping — against a four-man rush.

Pressure has become an increasingly larger issue during the season, with the line playing poorly and Cousins letting it affect him. He’s not conservative or lacking guts — he delivered in the face of free rushers several times Sunday — but Cousins struggles to read the field with clarity when pressured, especially when it arrives early and often (Week 14 at Seattle was another great example of this).

That’s not uncommon, though. In fact, it’s completely normal, especially for less-than-top-tier signal-callers. Minnesota is paying Cousins like a top-shelf guy, but the Vikings surely knew before they signed him that he was at least a step below that. Thus, Cousins needs better infrastructure to routinely excel, and the line in front of him just wasn’t up to par in 2018.

The line, of course, also has issues in the run game, a source of strain throughout the season that ultimately cost coordinator John DeFilippo his job. Mike Zimmer wanted to run the ball more, but the line isn’t suited to do so, especially against good fronts. On Sunday, the Vikings managed 63 yards on 15 carries, with nearly half (30) coming on just two carries. That’s not a run game to build on, nor one that supports the quarterback.

Interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski has run it more at Zimmer’s insistence, and he’s had some strong moments, but you can call only so many runs that don’t work. He also had issues adjusting on Sunday, as Minnesota repeatedly ran mesh concepts on third downs (and a critical fourth down late) despite the Bears being perfectly prepared for them. Chicago staged lurkers in the middle of the field and had safeties come downhill aggressively to cut the crossing routes, ending several Vikings drives.

None of this is to absolve Cousins of blame, but he surely doesn’t deserve all of the criticism for the team’s fall from the NFC Championship Game to missing the postseason. He played at an extremely high level in the first half of the season — especially in reading the field and delivering to the correct receiver — despite bearing a major load (42.6 attempts per game through Week 8). With a better offensive line and fewer early-season hiccups from the defense, the Vikings might well have been Super Bowl contenders.

Instead, they’ll watch the playoffs from home and regroup next season as Cousins approaches another potential foray into free agency. Of course, retooling the offensive line will be difficult given Cousins’ cap charge — and other large contracts handed out recently — but that’s the risk Minnesota took when signing him.

It’s still too early to deem that gamble a poor decision. Cousins has far outperformed the man he replaced — Case Keenum — and remains Minnesota’s highest-floor and highest-ceiling option.

Given the expectations, Cousins will be deemed a failure if he doesn’t reach (or perhaps even win) a Super Bowl, but there are plenty of other issues in Minnesota.

-Steve Sarkisian’s brilliant design, and where NFL offenses are headed

Matt Ryan caught a touchdown on Sunday on a variation of the “Philly Special,” which has proliferated this season (Ryan Tannehill also scored on a nearly identical play Sunday) after Nick Foles made it famous in February.

But Sarkisian’s best design against the Buccaneers came later in the game, on a 7-yard score that got Calvin Ridley so open he could have crawled the final 5 yards if he wished. Ridley was wide open because his defender was knocked down, but it was far from that simple. Sarkisian deftly orchestrated traffic to create confusion, and the result was both Ridley and Julio Jones running scot-free in the most condensed area of the field.

While Matt Ryan faked a handoff from under center, Sarkisian sent Jones and Mohamed Sanu on deep-over routes from opposite sides, with their paths intersecting at the goal line to create congestion. Given the natural rub element, both routes were very difficult to cover, but neither was even the primary option on the play. Instead, Ridley was.

The rookie wideout lined up stacked with Jones tight to the right side of the formation and started to motion for a reverse after the snap. But before reaching Ryan, Ridley slammed on the brakes and returned to the right flat, just a few yards from where he began the play. Veteran Brent Grimes, marking Ridley, sprinted across the formation when he saw the motion, trying to get ahead of traffic to meet Ridley on the other side. As Ridley broke back, Grimes’ momentum carried him helplessly into two teammates — those marking Jones and Sanu — springing Ridley and Jones completely free.

Ironically, Grimes and teammates were victims of a pick despite playing off-coverage, which defenses usually play against condensed formations to AVOID picks. Sarkisian knew the Bucs would respond to this formation with off-coverage and designed the depth of the downfield routes accordingly. Everything worked to perfection, on this play at least. It wasn’t enough to save Sarkisian’s job, with the Falcons reportedly letting him go Monday after a 7-9 season.

The touchdown — especially Ridley’s route — also played off one of the NFL’s most prominent schematic trends this year.

Led by the two best offenses (Chiefs and Rams), teams have put tremendous emphasis on changing the strength of the formation — via motion that passes the center — during or after the snap. It’s most commonly done through jet sweeps and reverses, but also can happen via slice motion (crossing to the backside of the formation to block or fake a block), star motion (from the backfield straight to the sideline) and various other backfield releases. Condensed formations — increasingly popular as teams copy Sean McVay — are perfect for these tactics because they put more players in position to get involved.

Changing the formation’s strength creates major advantages in the run game, altering defenders’ gap assignments on the fly while often simultaneously spreading defenses out (especially with jet motion). But it also can wreak havoc in the passing game by either forcing man-coverage defenders to chase through traffic, or creating confusion for defenses that play pattern-matching coverages, which are also becoming much more common. Offensive schemers are better than ever at learning and exploiting defenses’ rules, and changing the formation’s strength is one of the best ways to do it.

Anytime a new trend sweeps across the league, several wrinkles are sure to follow. Ridley’s route was a perfect example — in this case, the formation’s strength appeared to change but ultimately didn’t.

Many teams — especially the Chiefs and Patriots — are already pairing jet sweeps with other misdirection concepts like screens and pitches on a regular basis, to great effect. Some have toyed with using multiple jet-sweeps/end-arounds on the same play, as the Browns did for a walk-in Jarvis Landry touchdown in Week 14 (which several other teams promptly copied). All sorts of other wrinkles will come, especially in 2019 after another offseason to divine new tricks.

One area ripe for creativity is in how coaches use the man in motion when he doesn’t get the ball. For now, players in jet, reverse or star motion don’t usually run a route, instead just hanging in the flat if the ball goes elsewhere. But coaches will find more things to do in these situations. That could be sending the player (usually a receiver or back) on a wheel route, which would be a nightmare to defend in man coverage and lethal when paired with a post route against zones. The man in motion could also run a wheel-stop (for a back-shoulder throw) or an angle route cutting back inside.

Many college offenses are already doing such things, and this is where the NFL is headed. It will get much tougher on defenses before it gets easier.

-The Patriots’ brilliance with backs, especially James White

Nobody deploys backs quite like Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.

The Patriots use a fullback more often than any team but the 49ers, but they also feature a “pony” package with two running backs — usually White and Rex Burkhead — on the field together. They are extremely specialized in how they use their backs and aren’t afraid of playing to tendencies: About two-thirds of White’s snaps this year have been pass plays, and the ratio is basically flipped with rookie Sony Michel on the field.

White doesn’t jump out as an outstanding athlete or overly elusive player — perhaps because his upper body remains so static — but he’s incredibly difficult to handle in the pass game. New England loves to deploy him on the weak side of trips formations, often with Rob Gronkowski as the only other receiver to that side. These looks help Tom Brady identify defenses, letting the Patriots exploit underneath zones with two-man route concepts or isolate White in man coverage (with the help defender on that side usually eyeing Gronkowski).

On Sunday, it was more often Chris Hogan as the single receiver to White’s side, as it was on White’s 17-yard touchdown. Expecting man coverage from the Jets, the Patriots ran four vertical routes with White isolated on an option route against linebacker Neville Hewitt. New York rushed five and left one deep safety, and with the vertical routes clearing everyone else out, White had plenty of room to dust Hewitt and scoot in for the score.

White often creates enough separation against man coverage — especially on options, angles and slants — to rack up yards after the catch before his man can even attempt a tackle. That sort of ability demands extra attention from defenses, but it’s difficult to devote a safety or double-team to a back, especially with Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and other weapons around. Former Patriots assistant and now-Lions head coach Matt Patricia showed White tremendous respect in Week 3, using a “bullseye” tactic to disrupt White’s release before covering him with a safety, but that was without Edelman in the lineup.

McDaniels might have more tricks up his sleeve for White in the playoffs. On Sunday, he sent him on a vertical route from the backfield that started up the seam and faded to the sideline, a very rare and difficult route to handle (Brady targeted Hogan deep on the play). One snap also featured White split wide left as the lone receiver while jet motion to the right created a quads set. White’s whip route wasn’t targeted because Edelman came wide open thanks to confusion from the jet sweep.

Of course, the Patriots can get creative with their other backs as well, especially the versatile Burkhead. On Burkhead’s 18-yard touchdown Sunday, McDaniels made him the outer slot receiver in a trips set, with fullback James Develin (in the backfield) and Gronkowski on the weak side. The Jets were late adjusting to the odd formation, and linebacker Avery Williamson wasn’t in position to match Burkhead’s seam route, especially with a perfect throw from Brady.

Brady was far sharper Sunday than in recent weeks, a good sign for the postseason, but he has remained shaky attacking deep down the field, especially outside the numbers.

With Gronkowski hobbled at times and drawing so much attention, New England might have to lean heavily on White and Burkhead in the passing game to dice up playoff defenses underneath.

—David DeChant, Field Level Media

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