Better together: Cousins, Thielen emerge as NFL's top QB-WR duo

EAGAN, Minn. -- The chemistry Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen have built in their first season as teammates stretches from their rise as the NFL’s top quarterback-wide receiver tandem to their "dead arm dance" touchdown celebration in the Minnesota Vikings' win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6.

The immediate success of the Cousins-Thielen duo is a major reason why Minnesota is 10th in total yards per game (391.2) and has the eighth-best passing attack (303.8 yards per game) entering Week 7. Cousins and Thielen rank first among all QB-WR duos in receptions (58) and receiving yards (712) and have a chance to rewrite several team and NFL single-season marks.

Against Arizona, Thielen became the first player in NFL history to catch 58 passes in his team’s first six games and just the second player ever to record 100 or more receiving yards in that same time frame. If he goes over the century mark against the New York Jets on Sunday, he’ll make history as the first player in the Super Bowl era to achieve that feat seven weeks into the season.

Thielen’s trajectory since 2016 comes as little surprise. The former practice squad player has upped his production from 69 catches for 967 yards in 2016 to a team-best 91 and 1,276 last season despite having a different quarterback throwing to him each season.

"I think consistency is a big part of being a great player in this league, not just doing it once or twice or for one season, but being able to do it for a whole season and then stacking seasons together, I think that’s when you start to realize you’ve got a special player," Cousins said. "That consistency is special, and we’ve got to continue to give him opportunities to where he can show us the player that he is."

Cousins has completed 185-of-260 passes for 1,921 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first six games as a Viking. If he keeps going at this rate, he could challenge Peyton Manning’s single-season passing record (5,477 yards in 2013) and shatter a handful of team marks along the way.

Cousins or Thielen won't tell you they care about any of those figures and they aren't eyeing any record in particular. But one thing is clear: They bring out the best in each other on the field and are arguably better now, together.

At this point last season, Thielen had 31 receptions for 352 yards from quarterback Case Keenum, who took over for Sam Bradford in Week 2. In 2017, Thielen became the first Vikings receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season since Sidney Rice (2009) and earned an invite to the Pro Bowl.

It’s difficult to look at a statistical mark for one player and not see how the other played a role in achieving that feat. Cousins wouldn’t have the third-best completion percentage (71.2) if his playmakers didn’t make plays. And Cousins has played a big role in Thielen leading the league in receptions and yards.

As a duo:

  • They have 15 catches when Cousins is under pressure, the most of any QB-receiver combo this season.

  • They have 16 catches on third down, which ranks first.

  • They have 39 catches on passes thrown 10 yards or fewer down field, the most in the NFL.

  • They have 28 catches and 437 yards on passes thrown outside the numbers, the most of any QB-WR combo.

  • They have 10 catches on passes thrown between the hashes, tied with Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster for second.

  • They have 12 catches when Cousins is blitzed, which is tied for fifth.

Cousins has looked stellar in the face of pressure at times this season, completing artful throws with a defender inches from his face mask. Half of being able to do that is a product of his own ability -- arm strength, accuracy and other attributes of a prolific passer and veteran quarterback being able to master tough situations.

The other part is the guy on the receiving end of those passes.

Under pressure, there’s no one Cousins has gone to more in the first six games than Thielen.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cousins was 7-of-9 passing for 76 yards and a touchdown when targeting Thielen against four or fewer pass-rushers in the Cardinals game. The duo has connected on 75 percent of their attempts against those pass rushes this season.

Why does that keep happening? Cousins will of course go where his reads take him, but they seem to keep finding their way to Thielen. Some of that has to do with the fact that his opponent’s No. 1 cornerback is often shadowing Stefon Diggs, leaving a more favorable matchup he chooses to exploit. Another reason is rooted in what makes Thielen an elite receiver -- his route-running ability and gaining the separation needed to get open, giving Cousins the confidence that he'll end up in the spot he's throwing to.

"I think dependability and being able to trust him that he is going to catch the ball wherever it is delivered," coach Mike Zimmer said. "It is a combination of both of those guys, really."

Their touchdown connection that set up the Vikings for overtime in their tie with Green Bay in Week 2 is a good snapshot of just how much they benefit from each other.

Cousins was praised for his innate ability to make a tight-window throw down the right sideline with Packers nose tackle Mike Daniels in his face as he launched the ball. Thielen also deserved props for the narrow space he had to make a catch between Jaire Alexander and Kentrell Brice for a 22-yard, game-tying touchdown.

They were each in pressure situations -- with both facing defenders barreling down on them -- and the pressure to execute in a do-or-die moment.

What's playing out is a product of the chemistry Cousins and Thielen have built dating back to their offseason throwing session in Atlanta, resulting in their ability to elevate each other’s game to new levels.

"All day he just continues to sit back there and trusts us to get open," Thielen said. "A lot of times he probably can’t even see us. He trusts us as receivers to get open because that’s our job, and he throws it and lets us go out there and make a play."

And just as Cousins is making those throws, Thielen’s execution is allowing them to happen. It's a partnership that’s paying major dividends for the Vikings and proving that Cousins and Thielen are better when they’re together.