By and large, Kirk Cousins has played excellent football for the Vikings this season. The polarizing veteran quarterback entered Sunday's game against the 49ers with 21 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, sporting top-three marks among NFL QBs in passer rating and Pro Football Focus grade. More importantly, Cousins has led numerous late-game drives to tie the score or take the lead, which has often been a point of criticism from his detractors in the past.
He hasn't been perfect by any means. Other metrics like QBR and EPA per play have Cousins ranked in the 10-12 range at the position — still above average, but not a star worthy of the elite money he's being paid. He also has held the Vikings' offense back at times this season with his overly conservative play, which to his credit, wasn't the case in wins over the Chargers and Packers heading into this 49ers game. But overall, Cousins wasn't the primary reason the Vikings entered Sunday's game with a 5-5 record. He had them in position to beat the Bengals and Cardinals to open the season and was let down by his offensive line in a couple other losses.
That's why Cousins' rough game against San Francisco was so disappointing to Vikings fans. In a crucial contest against another top NFC wild card contender, with multiple opportunities to get the job done, Cousins came up small. It was his worst individual performance of the season, and one that, fairly or unfairly, justified all of the nagging narratives surrounding his career in the eyes of many.
Cousins' overall numbers — 20 of 32 for 238 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 interception — don't tell the whole story. This was just his third-worst game of the season if you go by passer rating or QBR, ahead of ugly performances against the Browns and Cowboys. But in order to establish context, let's look at the pressure rates Cousins faced in each of those three games (via PFF).
- Week 4 vs. Browns: Pressured on 22 of 41 dropbacks (53.6 percent)
- Week 8 vs. Cowboys: Pressured on 16 of 39 dropbacks (41 percent)
- Week 12 vs. 49ers: Pressured on 6 of 33 dropbacks (18.2 percent)
The Vikings' offensive line made things extremely difficult for Cousins in those Browns and Cowboys losses; he was constantly under siege. That wasn't the case against the 49ers. Outside of Christian Darrisaw getting beat by Nick Bosa for the 49ers' lone sack and a couple bad reps from right guard Oli Udoh, Cousins had clean pockets to work with all day long. He simply didn't play well when the Vikings needed him most.
Things started out alright, as Cousins led two touchdown drives on Minnesota's first four offensive possessions. He looked like his usual accurate self in helping lead the Vikings' offense down the field and capping those two drives with touchdown passes to Adam Thielen.
It was the second half where things went south. In fact, the Vikings' first offensive play in the third quarter featured Cousins' worst throw of the season and set an ominous tone for the rest of the afternoon. With his team trailing 21-14 and desperately needing to respond to two quick 49ers touchdowns spanning the end of the first half and the start of the second, Cousins stared down Adam Thielen on a hitch route and threw the ball right into the waiting hands of 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. One play later, the Vikings trailed by 14 and were facing a major hill to climb.
It was Cousins' worst interception since last Week 6 against the Falcons, an inexcusable and extremely costly mistake from a veteran who rarely has moments like that.
"Just a poor throw, poor read," Cousins said. "You know, made a poor decision. Just got blocked out and shouldn’t have thrown it where I did."
The Vikings finally got off the mat and punched back on the ensuing possession, with Dalvin Cook breaking a big run and Cousins hitting Justin Jefferson twice to set up an Alexander Mattison touchdown. Then, when Kene Nwangwu took the kickoff following a 49ers field goal 99 yards for a touchdown, it appeared the Vikings were right back in it. Trailing 31-26, they attempted a two-point conversion to cut the deficit to three.
Cousins took the shotgun snap in an empty backfield, rolled to the right, and completely bungled it. He could've probably run it in, but made the understandable decision to throw to an open Jefferson. The problem? He bounced an uncatchable ball at Jefferson's feet.
The next time the Vikings got the ball, an unfortunate fumble by Cook set the 49ers up to add another field goal and go up 34-26 at the end of a chaotic third quarter. Despite the Vikings having a couple prime opportunities, that would ultimately be the final score.
The first chance in the fourth quarter came with the Vikings deep in San Francisco territory. They had set up a first-and-goal at the 6, but two Mattison runs went nowhere — that's on Klint Kubiak — and it was quickly third-and-goal at the 3. Cousins tried to fit a ball in a tight window to Tyler Conklin in the back of the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete. Then, on fourth down, he had his viral moment.
You've seen it by now. A flustered Cousins, running right and left in an effort to get everyone lined up correctly with the play clock winding down, came back to the middle of the field and lined up under the right guard. Not the center, who had the ball. The right guard. It was an unfortunate mistake in a big spot that made Cousins the butt of all kinds of jokes on social media and offered reminders of the time he accidentally kneeled at the end of a half instead of spiking it when he played for Washington.
"I was just moving, trying to get everybody settled up, and just got under the wrong guy," he said.
The Vikings were probably going to call a timeout anyways. But after gathering themselves to run the play, Cousins fired another uncatchable ball, this time well over the head of Jefferson in the back of the end zone.
Somehow, the Vikings found themselves still alive when the 49ers missed a field goal just after the two-minute warning. And when Cousins hit Jefferson to get to the SF 40-yard-line, they had a chance to complete a remarkable comeback. Then, for whatever reason, Cousins decided to check the ball down to Mattison twice in a row. His pass for K.J. Osborn fell incomplete on third down — Zimmer wanted a pass interference call but didn't get it — and his pass for Jefferson sailed high and wide on fourth down.
Look, this article is not simply meant to add to the dunking on Cousins that has taken place online since the game ended. He deserves plenty of credit for his strong play so far this season, particularly in recent weeks. But that means he also deserves criticism when it is warranted.
Cousins was not the sole reason the Vikings lost this game. Far from it. The defense missed tackles against the 49ers' run game and gave up a few poorly-timed big plays through the air, and the team as a whole had to battle through an unfortunate Cook fumble and some questionable officiating. But the point is this: Cousins had opportunities to step up and lead the Vikings to victory, and he wasn't able to do it.
With the injury situation on defense not going away and Cook now set to miss at least a couple games, it's going to fall on Cousins to do exactly that down the stretch. He couldn't get the job done on Sunday, but there are still six games left for him to bounce back and get the Vikings to the postseason.
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