Interceptions have been a major problem for Kirk Cousins so far during the 2020 season. After throwing just six all of last year, he's currently tied with Carson Wentz for the NFL lead with ten picks in six games. The Vikings' veteran quarterback has two games with three INTs – he had just three such outings in 88 starts prior to this year – and has thrown at least one pick in every game but one.
Cousins' lone interception-less performance happens to be the Vikings' one victory of the season, their road win against the Texans in Week 4. His turnovers have killed drives before they ever really started, giving momentum and a short field to the opposing team. Cousins' poor play outside of garbage time, particularly in the INT department, has been one of the leading causes of the Vikings' 1-5 start.
"The reality is if the pace I’m on in terms of the interceptions, if that were to continue, I won’t finish the season [as the starter]," Cousins said after the Falcons loss. "Whether it’s them telling me, ‘Hey we gotta improve,’ or them pulling me; we gotta get better. That’s what the rest of the season will be about for me, is trying to protect the football as best I can. Because when you turn the ball over, it really hurts your chances to win. I know that."
Not every interception is created equal. Some have been firmly Cousins' fault, while others are more difficult to blame him for. Let's take a look at all ten and see what went wrong and to what degree the QB was at fault. This isn't a big-picture article on Cousins' problems and how the Vikings can move on from him in the future, it's merely a review of ten specific plays. Feel free to draw your own conclusions from the film.
I've ranked these going backwards from No. 10 (not Cousins' fault) to No. 1 (completely his fault). The context of the game is provided, but these rankings are based on the level of blame Cousins deserves for each pick, not how important they were to the outcome. We begin with a couple failed Hail Marys.
No. 10: Second INT against Titans (Week 3)
Titans lead 31-30, 1:09 left in fourth quarter, ball at the Vikings' 26, 4th and 24
This was a desperation heave on 4th and 24, necessitated by a disastrous three-play stretch that included a botched shotgun snap between Garrett Bradbury and Cousins. The ball actually got to a great spot for Adam Thielen to potentially make a miraculous catch, but Kevin Byard made a nice play and it bounced into the hands of Amani Hooker.
Cousins' error: None
No. 9: Second INT against Colts (Week 2)
Colts lead 15-3, 0:01 left in second quarter, ball at the Colts' 48, 2nd and 10
Another Hail Mary that didn't work out. Cousins threw it 55 yards in the air but was unable to get the ball into the end zone. It was worth a shot before halftime but still looks bad in the box score.
Cousins' error: None
No. 8: Third INT against Falcons (Week 6)
Falcons lead 17-0, 1:15 left in second quarter, ball at the Falcons' 48, 1st and 5
This one also wasn't the QB's fault. He took a three-step drop and made the correct read – Chad Beebe was open on an in-breaking route – but Brian O'Neill was driven back by Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who smacked Cousins' hand as he released the ball. It went straight to Foyesade Oluokon for Cousins' third pick of the first half and tenth of the year. He couldn't have stepped up in the pocket to avoid Tuioti-Mariner, considering Grady Jarrett was coming around on a stunt and was ready to drill him.
Cousins' error: None
No. 7: First INT against Colts (Week 2)
Colts lead 12-3, 1:01 left in second quarter, ball at the Vikings' 25, 3rd and 10
Here's where Cousins starts to deserve blame. This was a third-down play late in a first half where the Vikings' offense was struggling mightily. Cousins said afterwards that he was trying to create a spark by taking a deep shot, but he threw the ball into double coverage and Thielen never had a chance.
"That was a shot play and that’s what we’re trying to do is take a shot there," he said. "I thought let’s give it a chance to get something going, get something sparked. Normal down and distance you wouldn’t just make that throw, but I just wanted to try to make something happen and get something going at the end of the half.”
It's hard to be too upset with Cousins for taking the deep shot, considering he's been criticized in the past for his unwillingness to chuck it deep and give Thielen or Stefon Diggs a chance to make a play. But if you pause the video at roughly the six-second mark, you'll see that he probably could've hit Bisi Johnson for a big play near midfield. If that happens, maybe the Vikings score and go into halftime down by 2 or 6 instead of 12. Still, this one is fairly low because it was basically an arm punt (which happened to have a 43-yard return).
Cousins' error: Decision-making
No. 6: Second INT against Falcons (Week 6)
Falcons lead 10-0, 5:51 left in second quarter, ball at the Vikings' 33, 3rd and 9
Cousins has both Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith Jr. on the left side of the field during this play and simply makes the wrong decision on where to go with the ball. He's under a bit of pressure and tries to hit Jefferson on the hitch route, but never sees A.J. Terrell breaking off of Smith and getting in position to intercept the pass. It's a nice play by the rookie Terrell, which keeps this down at No. 6, but Cousins has to be better.
"Third down, saw Cover 2, felt them squeeze Adam, doubled Adam, and wanted to replace the squeeze with throwing it to Justin, and the cloud corner jumped it and made a good play," he said.
Cousins' error: Decision-making, processing
No. 5: First INT against Titans (Week 3)
Vikings lead 17-9, 15:00 left in third quarter, ball at the Vikings' 25, 1st and 10
This one was weird. Cousins is under instant pressure as Dru Samia doesn't pick up the blitzing linebacker and Dalvin Cook can't get in front of the QB in time. It looks like the ball was thrown straight to Johnathan Joseph for a pick-six, but the touchdown return was negated by a dumb Jadeveon Clowney penalty. Cousins, recognizing he was about to get popped, was apparently trying to throw the ball away.
“There was a blitz and the defensive back dropped and he was in the window of the throw, and I was really just wanting to throw it away over his head and put it out of bounds, but the corner had vision and was off and outside and was able to go get it," he said. "In hindsight, I wish I'd just thrown it away further and just played for the next play.”
The protection did Cousins no favors, but if you're going to throw the ball away, you have to get more on it than he did. This is his lone interception thrown this year while the Vikings had the lead, and it set the table for a second-half Titans comeback.
Cousins' error: Accuracy
No. 4: Third INT against Colts (Week 2)
Colts lead 15-3, 11:04 left in third quarter, ball at the Vikings' 24, 2nd and 10
The two first-half picks in Indianapolis were excusable deep balls, but this one was just a bad throw. Cousins has Johnson wide open on a slant and puts the ball behind him, resulting in a tipped pass that winds up in the hands of Kenny Moore. Could Johnson have caught it? Maybe, but it would've been a heck of a catch given the speed and placement of the ball.
It's not 100 percent Cousins' fault, but that's a simple throw that he needs to deliver more accurately. The Colts would go on to kick a field goal and go up 18-3.
Cousins' error: Accuracy
No. 3: INT against Seahawks (Week 5)
Seahawks lead 14-13, 8:19 left in third quarter, ball at the Vikings' 25, 1st and 10
This was a huge one. Down 13-0 after a dominant first half by the Vikings, the Seahawks had just scored, recovered a Cousins fumble, and scored again to take the lead. On the very first play of the ensuing drive, Cousins rolled out off of play-action and had Jefferson wide open. He waited way too long to throw the ball, and K.J. Wright made a fantastic one-handed snag for the pick. One play later, Chris Carson broke through the Minnesota defense for a touchdown to cap a 21-0 run in less than two minutes of game time.
If Cousins throws the ball to Jefferson earlier, this is probably a big play. Instead, he waits a full second too long and the rookie's route brings him closer and closer to Wright. If he was going to wait that long to throw it, Cousins needs to put it deeper where only his receiver has a chance to make a play. The pick was a great play by Wright, but it can't happen if you're a veteran QB.
Cousins' error: Timing, accuracy
No. 2: INT against Packers (Week 1)
Packers lead 15-7, 0:34 left in second quarter, ball at the Vikings' 25, 2nd and 10
Cousins' first interception of the season was one of his worst. Looking to make something happen before halftime, he simply misses with this throw to Thielen. The pocket is fairly clean, so that's not an excuse. It's just a really bad throw that an elite cornerback like Jaire Alexander is going to intercept every time. Given that this is his third season playing with Thielen, he needs to know where to put the ball and needs to execute the throw.
“The ball was just inside," Cousins said. "If the ball is outside, I think it’s a completion. Once it was left inside, the defensive back was able to make the play.”
You can also argue that Cousins made the wrong decision here. Kyle Rudolph appears to break open over the middle of the field, and the Vikings still had all three timeouts so forcing it to the sideline wasn't necessary. Instead, Cousins throws the pick. Two plays later, Aaron Rodgers hit a deep touchdown pass to put the Packers up 22-7 at halftime.
Cousins' error: Accuracy, decision-making, processing
No. 1: First INT against Falcons (Week 6)
Score tied 0-0, 14:55 left in first quarter, ball at the Vikings' 25, 1st and 10
This throw on the first play of the game against Atlanta is Cousins' worst interception of the first six games, by far. It's basic stuff that you just can't do as the highly-paid veteran quarterback of a team that still had some faint playoff hopes coming into this game. Despite having all day to throw, he locks onto Jefferson right away and never sees Deion Jones dropping back in zone coverage. The result is that he throws it right to the waiting linebacker.
There are so many things that are bad about this play. He never scans the field to see Jones. He makes the wrong decision, considering Thielen was breaking free for a deep ball against single coverage that could've been a touchdown. And he doesn't even make a good throw; if Jones wasn't there, the pass would've been incomplete because it was well behind Jefferson. Yikes all around.
“I thought the first one was the worst one," Cousins said after the game. "First play of the game, and the coverage was not confusing. It was just a zone drop, and I simply forced the football into coverage, tried to do too much. That’s a mistake I may have made in Year 1, but I’m disappointed that I would do that now."
Notably, this was his third INT off of play-action after throwing one pick on a play-action pass all of last year.
Cousins' error: Decision-making, processing, accuracy, field vision
Overall, Cousins probably deserves to have more like six to eight interceptions instead of ten. That's very bad for six games, but it's not quite as eye-popping. With that said, he's made some truly awful throws this season. What's particularly concerning is that there hasn't been one single thing that has caused all of these picks; decision-making, processing, and accuracy have all been issues at times.
If Cousins can't clean up the interceptions going forward, it's not out of the question that he would get benched for Sean Mannion or one of the practice squad QBs. At the very least, it would result in the Vikings continuing to lose most of their games and looking for a way to move on from Cousins as soon as possible. Even if he turns things around, it might be too late. His flaws have come out time and time again early in this season, and it's probably time for the Vikings to pursue their quarterback of the future.
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