Right off-schedule: Why Vikings want to see Kirk Cousins run more

EAGAN, Minn. -- Kirk Cousins kept landing on one element of his game that he wanted to improve after a statistically sound first season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2018.

The quarterback has never been known as a guy who will go off-schedule and scramble to keep drives alive with his feet.

Cousins was the lowest-ranked running quarterback in the NFL in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, having turned 123 rushing yards into 11 first downs and one touchdown. Though his numbers were better during his final season with the Redskins in 2017 (179 yards, four TDs, 13 first downs), improvising has never been a big part of Cousins’ game.

Still, Cousins -- who ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 scouting combine -- believes it’s important to hone this skill entering his eighth season. He has pulled back on a piece of assurance he received from one of the best to ever do it.

"I was talking with [Vikings Hall of Fame quarterback] Fran Tarkenton this winter and Fran said, ‘Kirk, I only ran a 4.90 40 [-yard dash]. I wasn’t fast, but I ran around to then be able to throw,’" Cousins said. "I play with rhythm and timing, so I’m not trying to play off-schedule all the time, but I think I have the ability to run around a little bit and I think I have the arm to make those throws. So, it’s just a matter of doing it. It’s so important that it’s instinctual."

Going off-schedule -- improvising, scrambling, etc. -- isn’t the same thing as purely running. The Vikings aren’t expecting Cousins to become Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes. But they want to help him figure out how and when to break out this skill, particularly when it buys him time to find his playmakers downfield.

"It has to be when the play breaks down," Cousins said. "That’s the hard part, training your body and mind to do that … It has more to do with the defensive look combined with the run attempt than it does just the run attempt."

Escaping the pocket certainly opens quarterbacks up to more risk of getting hit, but if done properly, the payoff can yield important dividends for this offense.

The Vikings ranked 26th in third-down conversion percentage (35.78%) in Cousins’ first season. Some of the best third-down teams -- the Colts, Bucs and Chiefs -- were aided by their quarterback’s ability to go off-schedule.

When defenses are willing to utilize man or match coverages, where the throwing windows are smaller, teams won’t play a mobile QB the same way they would one who isn’t a threat to run.

If the Vikings can bring this skill out of Cousins in third-down situations, they might be able to catch defenses off-guard.

"He is a good athlete," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "It has been a work in progress to get him to [run on third down]. When they are playing two-man [coverage] and doubling everybody and they have their backs turned, you have five blockers and four rushers and a quarterback so you have a chance to make some plays with your legs."

Added assistant head coach Gary Kubiak: "I think it’s a positive in his game because he has the ability to leave the pocket when people play a lot of man and those type of things and keep us on the football field ... You don’t know how often it is going to happen in a game, but obviously you’ll be a good third-down team if your quarterback has the ability to do that."

Cousins admits the hard part is finding opportunities to work on it in training camp. On Minnesota’s first drive in its preseason win over New Orleans, a missed blitz pickup by fullback CJ Ham on third down forced Cousins to truck downfield for a 10-yard gain to escape defenders. There was no similar situation against Seattle on Sunday.

It's not something he can easily replicate in practice, so developing instincts to know when a play has broken down enough to make a run for it can be tricky because these aren’t scripted or designed runs.

"It’s really hard with a red jersey," Cousins said. "That’s why you say you don’t really know a lot about yourself until you get into live bullets, because with a red jersey, we’re going to argue back and forth all day long that, 'Oh, he was sacked and no I wasn’t, and I would have slipped out of that and I spun away.' That’s kind of the ongoing banter between the offense and the defense all training camp long and OTAs.

"It’s been hard to train, because you aren’t really getting hit so you don’t know when you can realistically escape pressure and when you have to say, 'Hey, I was sacked there, and I can’t get away with that.' You kind of just have to learn it in live bullets, and time will tell if I’m going to do that or not."