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Vikings Mailbag: Kirk Cousins, Lewis Cine, Danielle Hunter, Packers Thoughts

Answering a bunch of Twitter questions, mostly on the Vikings' Week 1 win over the Packers.
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The Vikings are coming off a huge win over the Packers that has them gaining a lot of national buzz as a potential NFC contender. That sets up what should be a very fun Week 2 road matchup with the Eagles on Monday Night Football, where even more eyeballs across the country will be on Kevin O'Connell's team.

With the hype growing around this team, I wanted to answer your questions about what we saw last weekend and some things to keep in mind going forward. I might not do a mailbag every single week, but they'll be a part of my content plan all season long. Keep an eye on my Twitter to see when I ask for questions.

Thanks to everyone who submitted this week. I got to almost all of them.

Here we go.

@RingoNo4: What do the Vikings need to do the same/differently in order to sustain long-term success this season? A momentous victory over the Packers only goes so far I'm guessing. 

The Packers win was impressive but you're right that it only means so much. It also could've been a much closer game if Christian Watson doesn't drop the ball on Green Bay's first offensive play or if the Packers score on fourth and goal from the 1.

One of the big things they need to continue to do is find ways to pepper Justin Jefferson with targets. Kirk Cousins needs to continue playing confidently and moving around well in the pocket, and Kevin O'Connell needs to executing at a high level as a play caller. Do those things, feed Dalvin Cook plenty, and get the ball to the other pass-catchers when Jefferson draws heavy attention, and this offense should continue to be effective. One big area of improvement would be the interior pass protection, which remains a concern heading into Week 2.

Defensively, the Vikings just need to hope for sustained health. As long as Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith are out there, the pass rush will be dangerous. I liked what I saw from the entire defense against the Packers, but the Eagles will present a bunch of different threats. This will be another great test for Donatell's crew.

@MMauritz: After rewatching the game it looks like the pack kept attacking Hicks, he looked slow to fill and when covering the flat. How long till we see Asamoah out there in his place?

It's true, Jordan Hicks had a rough game in coverage against the Packers. He seemed to be a step behind where he needed to be on a number of occasions, and PFF charged him with allowing eight catches on eight targets for 88 yards.

Still, let's pump the brakes. We're not even close to the conversation of Brian Asamoah replacing him. Hicks is an eighth-year veteran with 90 career starts. He's signed to a two-year deal. He led the Vikings with 14 tackles and forced a fumble on a sack. He's a smart, experienced player who is a good tackler and run defender. Asamoah, an undersized third-round pick, has plenty of upside but looked very raw during the preseason. He needs plenty of development before potentially becoming a starter.

Let's see how Hicks looks in coverage over the next few weeks. It's possible that area of his game will improve as he gets more comfortable in this defense and with his new teammates. 

@Farm_Fields204: Two of the underlying themes of the 2021 Vikings were absent on Sunday: they did not give up any points in the last 2 minutes of each half AND they did not win or lose a one score game. What other team or player narrative that you were interested in changed as well?

The big thing that stood out to me was how the Vikings finished the game. In recent years, they seemingly had a tendency to get comfortable when they had the lead, and they'd let other teams back into the game because of it.

I'd imagine plenty of Vikings fans started to get nervous late in the third quarter of Sunday's game. The Packers had scored to make it 20-7, and they followed that up by getting a stop and forcing a punt. A 23-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers to Romeo Doubs moved the ball near midfield early in the fourth quarter. If they scored again, it could've gotten very interesting.

Instead, an Eric Kendricks blitz forced an incompletion on second down, and the coverage held up long enough on third down for D.J. Wonnum to get to Rodgers for a sack. The Packers punted, the Vikings drove all the way down the field — including a Jefferson contested catch on third down — and they kicked a field goal to make it 23-7 midway through the quarter. Another stop on the following drive, this time with Kendricks breaking up a pass on fourth down, sealed the deal.

That's how you close a game.

@FamousNorseman: What was your favorite play made by a Vikings player on Sunday?

There are a bunch of possible answers here, but I'll go with Cousins stepping up in the pocket and throwing Jefferson open on the 64-yard gain in the first half. That was a great play, even if the play-action went to the wrong side and it wasn't the prettiest spiral. Cousins' pocket awareness and aggressiveness are so important.

@BostonOkie63: What’s your thoughts on Cousins ability to extend plays with his feet? I believe he missed a couple opportunities last week and he missed a bunch last season.

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Extending plays with his feet is never going to be a major strength of Cousins' game. It's just not who he is. He's not someone who's going to escape the pocket, roll out, and make a spectacular off-schedule throw, like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and other mobile quarterbacks with ridiculous arms.

And that's OK! You don't need to be able to do that to play the quarterback position at a high level. What Cousins does need to do is be able to make subtle movements in the pocket to escape pressure, keep his eyes downfield, and find the open man. He's improved in that area year over year, and I thought he was great against the Packers in that regard.

@Up4Discussion_7: Will, do you think KOC will give Kirk Cousins free control to audible at the LoS?

@maseface77: How much of an impact will allowing Cousins to call and audible plays at the line have this year? He didn’t seem to have that freedom last year.

I do think a big element of the O'Connell-Cousins relationship is that Cousins will have the freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage. It's probably not something O'Connell will want him to do all the time, but he trusts him to recognize fronts and coverages and audible to something else if necessary. I think he's had the ability to do that in the past, but maybe didn't feel as empowered to do so with confidence. It could make a difference!

@DarrickMoren: It seems like Cine would be a huge addition this week against the Eagles. Would he be a QB shadow or be part of a 2 deep safety look and come downhill for run support?

@Olsond1: What are your thoughts on three safeties on the field at the same time when Cine is healthy, and do you think this fits something our coaching staff would do?

Lewis Cine is set to make his NFL debut on Monday night, but I'd be hesitant to expect him to play a major role on defense. Cam Bynum is entrenched as the starter next to Harrison Smith for now, and Bynum played a solid game in Week 1. Cine could perhaps be mixed in with certain packages if the Vikings play some dime (six defensive backs) or want an ultra-athletic spy on Jalen Hurts, but it would surprise me if he played more than ten defensive snaps. His primary role in this game will be on special teams, where coordinator Matt Daniels said he'll be immediately used in all four coverage and return phases.

Going forward, the Vikings could start to tinker more and more with some three-safety looks to get Cine and Bynum on the field at the same time, but the question is who comes out in those packages? They have two talented veteran inside linebackers who they want on the field, and they like Chandon Sullivan's ability in the slot. It's a fun problem for Ed Donatell and company to have. Cine will have the opportunity to compete to supplant Bynum in the starting lineup over the course of the season if he shines in practice and his limited game reps, or if Bynum falters.

@AlNotino: Do you think the secondary is actually better this year? Or was the GB game an outlier because of all the young receivers. What do you think will happen versus star receivers?

We're about to find out against A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith on Monday night. I do think the Vikings' secondary has a chance to be slightly better this year. Right now, it's basically the same unit, with no Bashaud Breeland (that's good), Chandon Sullivan replacing Mackensie Alexander (not much difference) and Cam Bynum in for Xavier Woods (possibly a minor downgrade, but we'll see). The only thing that's different is the scheme.

A big thing for this secondary is simply that the pass rush should be much more consistent for as long as Hunter and Za'Darius Smith are healthy. Then there's the possibility of Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. working into the mix eventually, as well. I still think it's a fairly big concern, mostly because Peterson is susceptible to speed and Dantzler remains inconsistent until proven otherwise.

@ThePub2: Are the Vikings and the NFL ever going to let us bring back the fire in the pre-game. We have the best game experience and it really is not nearly the same with the smoke instead of fire.

I hope so. The fire was awesome. But I have no idea if that's a possibility. Blame the Titans for causing that ban.

@hippo10102: How good is Danielle Hunter when healthy?

He's one of the ten best edge rushers in the league when he's at full strength. There's no doubt about that in my mind. We're talking about a guy who was second in the league in pressures in 2019 — behind only his current edge partner — and became the youngest player ever to reach 50 career sacks. Hunter is still an incredible weapon because of his size, strength, burst, and arsenal of pass rush moves.

I mean, look at this:

He looks pretty healthy to me.

@Latinpig66: Thoughts on letting guys like Watts and ISM go? It seems to have weakened our depth.

I don't think it matters much, although I'm still surprised by both moves. Personally, I'd rather have Watts than Ross Blacklock, and I'd rather have Ihmir Smith-Marsette than Jalen Nailor (though I'm intrigued by the Jalen Reagor pickup). Unless both players blossom with the Bears, which is unlikely, it's not going to be particularly consequential.

Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis all offseason long. Also, follow me on Twitter and feel free to ask me any questions on there.