Kirk Cousins shared a story following the Minnesota Vikings' second straight loss on Thursday against the Los Angeles Rams. It allowed him to look past the frustration of a 38-31 loss, even if just for a minute, as he discussed the tenacity of his top receivers.
Trailing by 11 with 4:24 to play in the third quarter, Cousins sensed a blitz coming off the right edge by John Johnson III and threw a high pass over the Rams safety. Stefon Diggs ran a quick slant and high-pointed the ball to haul in the reception, making cornerback Marcus Peters miss in the process. The catch pushed Diggs over 100 yards receiving (he finished with 11 receptions for 123 yards) and set the Vikings up for a scoring drive. On the next play, Cousins moved Johnson out of the middle of the field, leaving Adam Thielen wide open for a 45-yard touchdown reception.
"Adam’s walking back to the huddle, he looks at me and he said, ‘The other dog came out, you better start getting him [Diggs] the ball,’" Cousins said. "And he could tell, and I’ve been around Stef that, you know, long enough, but he’s been around long enough that when he gets that look in his eye, like, get him the ball. I love to see that competitiveness and then to see how Adam and him feed off one another."
Much like what led to the Vikings’ Week 2 tie in Green Bay, Minnesota’s success on offense in their loss to the Rams came in large part due to excellent performances from Diggs and Thielen. Both saw double-digit targets and they combined for 19 catches on 27 targets, 258 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The "other dog" came out for Cousins, too, against the Rams. Without the support of his run game, Cousins kept the Vikings alive by completing 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns.
He also ended their hopes of a comeback, losing the ball when his right arm was hit from behind by John Franklin-Myers with 1:29 to play, fumbling away the Vikings' attempt at tying the game.
Issues of pocket awareness and sensing pressure have been well-documented struggles for Cousins long before he arrived in Minnesota. Since he became a starter in Washington in 2015, Cousins leads the NFL with 35 fumbles.
It’s certainly not all Cousins' fault. For a second straight week, a defender got around left tackle Riley Reiff to strip the ball from Cousins as he was trying to throw. The Rams' defense pressured Cousins on 46.4 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. The Vikings' offensive line allowed 29 pressures in back-to-back games, coming in the form of three sacks, three hits and 23 hurries on Thursday.
Cousins performed better against pressure (15-of-21 passing for 163 yards and a TD) than he did when facing Buffalo in Week 3, but the end result was the same. While Cousins has shown at times why the Vikings paid $84 million to sign him, he also has committed costly mistakes that continue to raise questions.
A lot of what has transpired on offense through the first quarter of the season might feel like déjà vu for Cousins. Over his three years as a starter in Washington, the Redskins' inability to formulate a successful ground attack frequently forced Cousins to win games on his own. Without that offensive balance, more times than not the Redskins' fortunes rested on whether Cousins played well.
Washington never had a run game that ranked higher than 20th during Cousins’ three-year stretch as a starter, nor did he have the support of a defense that could bail the offense out when things went awry.
That was supposed to change when he arrived in Minnesota. For the first time in his career, he was expecting to play with the backing of the league's No. 1 defense and a run game touted as the centerpiece of this offense.
Through four games, the defense has been a bitter disappointment, putting the pressure on Cousins to come through in shootouts with late-game heroics. The same can be said for a run game that ranks 31st, averaging 63 yards per game. Cousins' gaudy passing stats through four games (he’s on pace for 5,548 passing yards) are due to his being forced to keep up with his opponents in situations when the offense is playing from behind (every game except Week 1’s win over San Francisco) and win with his arm.
The Vikings are at their best on offense when they have Dalvin Cook running downhill and Cousins utilizing a play-action passing game to keep teams off-balance. Cook’s hamstring injury has kept him limited while Minnesota’s other backs have struggled to pick up the workload.
The lack of offensive explosion in the run game has much to do, arguably, with the play of the offensive line. Despite being pressured on almost half his dropbacks in Los Angeles, Cousins had the most time he’s had to throw this season (2.86 seconds). But the problem remains that Cousins is holding on to the ball too long on obvious passing downs. Several times in the Vikings' past two losses, Cousins had a clean pocket to throw from and failed to connect with his receivers.
The first quarter of the season has yielded a display of ups and downs for Cousins. Some of that was to be expected with a new quarterback in a new system, particularly during a brutal stretch of the Vikings' first five games (vs. 49ers, at Green Bay, vs. Buffalo, at Rams, at Eagles).
"I kind of figured it was probably going to take a little bit of time with some of the new pieces," coach Mike Zimmer said. "Just because everybody expected us to be 4-0 at this point or whatever it is, doesn’t mean that’s realistic."
And the thought that Cousins will be able to consistently pull Minnesota out of holes isn’t realistic either. When his supporting cast has struggled, so has Cousins.
"I always go back and look at the plays that I can control," Cousins said. "Those are the ones that I agonize over. If I feel like I can control a better result. Sometimes the fumble, sometimes the sack, sometimes the incompletions are not so much something that I can control as much as just unfortunate. You know, so I think it’s a balance."
That key word -- balance -- is one the Vikings aim to find going forward. If Minnesota’s defense and run game can bring out its "other dog" like Cousins and his top receiving duo did in Los Angeles, he will finally have the support that’s been missing during his first four games as a Viking.