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Breaking Down Kirk Cousins' Three-INT Game in Vikings' Loss to Eagles

Cousins needs to be better under pressure for the Vikings to bounce back against the Lions.
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Interceptions happen for a variety of reasons. Some are the quarterback's fault, whether it was a bad decision or an inaccurate throw. Some are on the receiver. Some are simply the product of bad luck or a great defensive play.

Kirk Cousins, who generally protects the football well, threw three second-half interceptions against the Eagles on Monday night, all of which occurred deep in Philadelphia territory. It was the fourth three-INT game of his career, with two of those happening in 2020 losses to the Colts and Falcons. Cousins' performance wasn't the only reason the Vikings fell flat in a 24-7 primetime loss — the defense was abysmal in the first half, the running game never got going, and there were some blatant drops by pass-catchers — but the turnovers prevented Minnesota from mounting a comeback.

Before we get to the interceptions, it's important to set the scene. The Vikings went into halftime down 24-7 largely because their defense was almost nonexistent in giving up 347 yards of offense before the break. But the offense also struggled to get going early on; the Vikings only ran 21 plays in the first half, going three and out on four of their five possessions.

The first drive ended on a Darius Slay pass breakup that should've been flagged for pass interference, which set a bad tone for the game.

"We did hear back through channels that it ... probably should have been first down, Vikings based upon (Justin Jefferson) only having one hand to catch the football," Kevin O'Connell said on Wednesday.

The Vikings couldn't get much going with their early-down runs, which set up some third downs they weren't able to convert on. A critical drop by tight end Irv Smith Jr. on what would've been a long touchdown pass shortly after the two-minute warning also hurt. So by the time the second half started, the Vikings were facing the challenge of overcoming a 17-point deficit in a hostile road environment.

"When you only have 21 plays and you can’t convert on those early third downs and stay efficient, that’s how we want to activate and operate and do a lot of the things that we do offensively," said O'Connell — who placed the blame for this loss on himself — after the game.

The Vikings had a chance to get some momentum back on the opening drive of the second half. They drove the ball into the Eagles' red zone, but on second down, Cousins threw his first pick of the game while targeting Jefferson in the end zone. That one wasn't his fault. Cousins said he was expecting Jefferson to break in front of Darius Slay, and the Vikings' star receiver concurred that he should've done that.

"That’s honestly on me," Jefferson said. "I’ll take that one. I’ve got to be flatter if (Darius) Slay’s going to sit on that type of route. I’ve got to come flatter and be in front of him instead of going behind him. So that one's on me."

On their next possession, the Vikings once again had an opportunity to cut into the deficit and make things interesting. They had just gotten a huge break from their special teams unit — which has been great in all phases this season — when Patrick Peterson blocked a field goal and Kris Boyd ran it back to the Eagles' 30. But three plays later, facing a third down, Cousins tried to fit a ball into a small window to Adam Thielen, and he miscalculated. Avonte Maddox dropped into the zone, left his feet, and was able to snag the ball for another pick.

When you're trailing by multiple scores, particularly in the second half, the situation can lead to pressing or trying to do too much to get back in the game. That's something O'Connell thinks the entire team, including himself as a play caller and Cousins as a quarterback, dealt with down the stretch on Monday night.

"I thought we definitely could have helped him out a little more, and I think Kirk would be the first one to tell you there were some plays across the board there where we, myself included, pressed a little bit, trying to make a lot back up in a hurry," O'Connell said.

Cousins agreed that he may have gotten too aggressive on that specific throw.

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By the time the third interception rolled around, the opportunity for a comeback had already just about slipped away from the Vikings. A sack on their first drive of the fourth quarter forced them to punt, and by the time they were gifted a Jordan Hicks interception on a deflected screen pass, there were less than eight minutes remaining in the game.

Still, the Vikings' final relevant offensive sequence kind of summed up their night. Cousins threw an incompletion on first and goal from the 9. On second down, the Eagles brought a blitz, Cousins threw the ball up towards Jefferson, and it was nearly picked by Slay in the end zone. One play later, the Eagles brought pressure again and Cousins did the same thing, chucking up an under-thrown ball towards Jefferson. This time, Slay came down with it for his second pick of the night.

The Vikings got one more garbage time possession and drove the length of the field, only to be stalled out in the red zone for the fourth time in the half.

O'Connell called the interceptions "momentum killers." Obviously, getting touchdowns on those possessions could've changed the outlook of the game. But even getting field goals on all three drives that ended in picks, in theory, could've set the Vikings up with a chance to have the ball down 24-16 at the end of the game. It doesn't exactly work like that, as the Eagles might've played more aggressively on offense if the Vikings had cut into the lead, but you never know what could've happened if Minnesota had started to chip away.

"If we’re able to get 3 on a couple of those possessions, you’re really talking about it being a one-possession game, possibly, late in the game — which we didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to do," O'Connell said. "Looking back on it, did we have to get it all back at once? Did we have to try to get that score tied quickly, or did we just need to play smart and kind of play the right way? I think that’s where it kind of starts with me, and then it trickles down to our staff and players, first and foremost. That’s 100 percent why I think I could have been better for our group."

"That's what's so important about red zone offense is making sure you come away with 3 points and never feeling like you're out of it," Cousins said. "There's so many times where you are behind but you just need to chip away and know that anything can happen, the game can turn on any play. It could be a special teams play, it could be a defensive play, so you don't need to be overly aggressive or try to get it all back. You can just chip away and take what they give you."

It wasn't just the three interceptions that led to a poor night for Cousins, although those were the most visible examples of his struggles. There were several other plays where he didn't see open receivers as he went through his progressions. Cousins did make a few impressive throws, but overall, it was a rough individual performance that opened him up to easy criticism from a national audience that's aware of his history in primetime games.

"I thought Kirk battled tonight and I put him in some tough spots," O'Connell said. "Our overall offensive philosophy when we do not succeed, it puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and that’s where once again I put this 100 percent on me to be better for our offense and our team."

Pressure and coverage presented issues. Cousins was good under pressure against the Packers, but it helped that Jefferson was able to get open all game long against Green Bay's zone defense. The Eagles played a lot more man, which the Vikings had a difficult time solving.

The Vikings became one-dimensional because of the score, only handing the ball off nine times on 61 plays. That allowed the Eagles to pin their ears back and pressure Cousins. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins went 5 for 13 for 37 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions when pressured in Philadelphia. He was also sacked twice.

"Lot of Cover 0 we got against the Eagles and we just gotta be able to handle it and make plays against it," Cousins said. "It's something that we'll see throughout the year and we've seen a lot throughout the past. It's important to handle it well and we didn't handle it well enough on Monday night."

The Vikings can expect more of the same from their next opponent, the Lions, especially after Monday night's result. Through two games this year, Detroit has played a lot of man coverage and sent blitzes at a high rate. Those are things the Vikings are going to have to adjust to.

O'Connell has made it clear that it starts with him, but he doesn't control everything. Even if the Vikings are able to be more balanced by getting the run game going, there will be times where they're in obvious passing situations. For the Vikings to get back on track offensively, Cousins will need to handle pressure better and make good decisions, balancing aggressiveness with taking care of the football.

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