If the Vikings' offense had been more successful in the red zone against the Saints, they could've avoided the dramatic double doink ending entirely. Their struggles in that area were caused by a variety of factors, but one of them was Kirk Cousins' tendency to take the short route over a shot to the end zone.
The Vikings scored touchdowns on their first and final red zone opportunities during Sunday's game in London, but in between those successes were three straight trips inside the 20 that ended in field goals. Those possessions spanned the end of the first half and the start of the second. The Vikings went up 16-7 with the trio of field goals, but they could've started to pull away even further with at least one touchdown.
On the first one, the Vikings faced a third and 1 from the Saints' 10 with a little over a minute left in the half. Cousins took his first read, throwing a short pass to tight end Johnny Mundt for what should've been an easy first down. Instead, the ball went right through Mundt's hands and head coach Kevin O'Connell elected to send the field goal unit out in a tie game.
This was a completely understandable decision from Cousins. If Mundt catches the ball like he should, the Vikings are set up with first and goal.
With that said, he had another option. Adam Thielen was wide open on the play for what could've been a simple touchdown, which would've avoided the need to convert on a goal-to-go situation.
"The third-and-short that we didn't connect on, if you look at it, I gotta take the guy who’s open for the first down, but you'd love to pump it and then work Adam on the corner," Cousins said after the game.
On the very next play from scrimmage, the Vikings got the ball back when Dalvin Tomlinson stripped Andy Dalton and Harrison Phillips recovered the fumble. Immediately, Cousins and the offense were back in the red zone, at exactly the 20.
On first down, Cousins rolled to the right off of play-action and dumped the ball off to Justin Jefferson, his No. 1 receiver. Although Jefferson had some space to work with at first, Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo closed quickly and made a great tackle for no gain.
Again, it wasn't a horrible decision. But when you check the All-22 film, Cousins had another option on that play, too. K.J. Osborn was breaking open towards the end zone as the ball was dumped off to Jefferson.
This would've been a tough play to make. Adebo was watching Osborn before breaking on Jefferson when the ball was thrown. But Osborn had the depth to get past Adebo, and neither of the two defensive backs near the deep middle of the field had leverage to the outside.
Cousins also brought up this play when talking about the Vikings' red zone failures in his postgame press conference.
"That one, again, I thought when I checked it down to J.J., that maybe I pump that one, get the guy flat-footed and go to K.J. for a touchdown," he said. "So there's plays there where you’re like, you know, I could be greedy and try to pump it and get a touchdown there, maybe we're not kicking field goals."
Like Cousins said, if he holds Adebo with his eyes or a pump fake, that throw to the end zone to Osborn would've been there. It's a tough throw to make on the run, but it's one some of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers, etc. — probably attempt and pull off.
Instead, the drive went nowhere. Cousins threw the ball away under pressure on second down, and after a Brian O'Neill false start set up third and 15, he dumped the ball off to Irv Smith Jr. for a short gain to set up another field goal.
The Vikings' first offensive possession of the third quarter was a three-and-out, but they got another chance when Kris Boyd forced and recovered a fumble on the Saints' punt return. Cousins then hit Jefferson on a deep over route for 41 yards, getting the ball down to the Saints' 3.
Maddeningly, that drive didn't end in a touchdown either. Cousins took a delay of game on first down, which he blamed himself for. After moving back five yards, a Dalvin Cook run went nowhere. On second down, Cousins did well to look off the safety, stand in against pressure, and deliver the ball to Jefferson on an in-breaking route in the end zone. However, the throw was slightly behind Jefferson, who couldn't haul it in. Both players would tell you they'd like to have that one back.
The more notable play was the read Cousins made on third down. Jefferson got open on a corner route, but Cousins threw it to Thielen on a shallow crosser instead. He was tackled for a gain of just a yard, setting up yet another field goal.
"There was one series in the third quarter I thought was the most disappointing one," Cousins said. "The delay of game, which is on me. And then twice I think Justin was open for touchdowns and we didn't connect. Checked it down to Adam once. I thought the corner was sinking and he wasn't."
"Thought we had a little bit of a chance at a high-low with (Marshon) Lattimore in kind of a more two-deep structure that we were expecting on third down from the 7," O'Connell said on Monday. "Just thought that Justin maybe had a chance in the back of the end zone there, but at the same time, Kirk putting the ball in play and giving Adam a chance to catch and run possibly for that touchdown, maybe I can call something better with all five eligibles trying to get into the end zone."
Lattimore was caught in between the Vikings' top two receivers, but his eyes were on Thielen after passing Jefferson off. Throwing to Jefferson in the corner of the end zone would've required some nice touch from Cousins, but it's absolutely a throw he's capable of making. In that moment, it would've been the right decision.
When looking at each one individually, none of those three decisions from Cousins were awful. He took care of the ball and made quick, accurate throws to open underneath receivers. We also don't know what the progression of his reads looked like on each of those plays. Still, put them together and a slightly concerning pattern emerges.
If Cousins is a little more aggressive in those red zone opportunities, the Vikings might've won that game without a stressful ending. He knows he could've let it rip, too, considering he brought up all three plays after the game.
It's also worth remembering that it's still very early in a season where Cousins is operating in an entirely new offense. As he and O'Connell watch film and have discussions and continue to work together, we could see Cousins get more and more comfortable in this offense. If and when that happens, he might end up taking those throws to the end zone in future games.
"It’s still four weeks in to a new offensive system to him," O'Connell said. "Although I continue to feel great about his preparation, both throughout the offseason into our season and then how he is methodically preparing every single week with the plans that we give him, I think Kirk’s going to continue to be more consistent, make the throws that we ask him to make while running the show and doing a lot at the line of scrimmage within our no-huddle, within our offense.
"I feel great about where Kirk’s headed and obviously, there’s some things we can really coach hard, I can coach better to help him be at his best and truly start maximizing what we’re going to become as an offense."
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