Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings have failed to establish any type of comfort on the field in this strange 2020 season that’s already one-eighth done.
They’ve found safety — and very much the wrong kind.
For the second straight game, Cousins took a costly sack in his own end zone that helped the opponent gain steam on the way to a hefty halftime lead the Vikings proved ill-equipped to overcome. Cousins produced the worst passer rating of his NFL career, throwing three interceptions in a 28-11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
“He didn’t play very good,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, deferring specific commentary on why Cousins struggled so badly. “I’ll have to look at the tape.”
The Vikings have sure produced a pair of low-budget films this fall.
“It’s hard to compare the two games. I think they’re each their own entity,” said Cousins, who went 11 for 26 for 113 yards and no scores while taking three sacks for a 15.9 passer rating.
With a 7-3 lead on Green Bay in the opener a week ago, the Vikings took possession on their 1-yard line following a goal-line stand by the defense early in the second quarter. On second-and-7, Cousins took a safety on a blindside sack by cornerback Jaire Alexander, who altered his assignment after misreading the play and rushed without permission. The Packers turned the free kick into a field goal and never trailed again, building a 22-7 advantage on the way to a 43-34 victory.
The game in Indianapolis unfolded for the Vikings in disturbingly and eerily similar fashion, except for the meaningless 24-point fourth quarter they produced against the Packers.
After a Colts punt pinned the Vikings deep, Cousins dropped back to pass on third-and-7 from the 5 as the pocket collapsed in front of him in the end zone. He spun out of defensive end Denico Autry’s arms, but defensive tackle DeForest Buckner outlasted the double team from left guard Dakota Dozier and center Garrett Bradbury and corralled Cousins as he tried to inch across the goal line. That gave the Colts a 9-3 lead with 5:01 remaining in the second quarter, and they drove 58 yards after the free kick to tack on another field goal.
That was the 27th safety allowed in Vikings history and just the second time in consecutive games. They also gave up safeties on Dec. 23 (Washington) and Dec. 30 (Denver) in 2007.
Excluding the playoffs, the Vikings have stunningly allowed a safety in three straight regular-season games since Chicago picked one up by tackling running back Mike Boone in the end zone on Dec. 29, 2019.
The next three drives by the Vikings ended with interceptions, followed by two punts, as the Colts defense kept up the disruption. Over an eight-possession span from early in the second quarter to early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings totaled only three first downs.
Falling behind early has prevented the Vikings from controlling the flow with prized running back Dalvin Cook, and the turned-over defense has showed some concerning vulnerabilities up the middle and down the field.
“You kind of get off schedule,” Cook said, “and you don’t get the carries that you need.”
The Vikings were relying on stability to spur their offense in this virus-disrupted season. They lost the usual spring practice time to the pandemic, but so did every team. They watched offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski leave to take over as head coach in Cleveland, but Gary Kubiak was promoted to keep the same system in place. They traded dissatisfied wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, but they made LSU star Justin Jefferson a first-round draft pick.
Whether it’s the rhythm with his young receivers, his primary play-caller or his best deep threat, Cousins has clearly been missing something from the 2019 season that was his best as a pro and included his first career victory in the playoffs.
“It was just one of those days where we just couldn’t get anything going,” Cousins said. “It was a variety of reasons, so it’s hard to pin it on any one thing. That’s where you have a lot to learn from, then, when you watch the tape. We obviously need to be much, much better going forward.”