Michael Rand: Vikings' biggest question: Can they protect Kirk Cousins in obvious passing situations?

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Kirk Cousins is entering his third season as Minnesota Vikings quarterback. Instead of letting Cousins play out his initial contract this year, the team gave him an extension in March. - Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

Friday will mark six full months since the NBA shut down, starting a chain reaction of sports leagues around the United States hitting pause in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I have not been in the Star Tribune office since the end of that week. To say things have changed quite a bit in half a year is the understatement of the century.

Ah, but here we are at the dawn of an NFL season — and the uncomfortable comfort, if you’re a Vikings fan, of asking a very familiar question: Can the Vikings, with talent on both sides of the ball, do one fundamental thing that likely will make or break their season?

Can they protect quarterback Kirk Cousins, particularly when the down and distance reflect that they are almost certainly going to attempt a forward pass?

We talked about this on the most recent Access Vikings podcast, much like we probably in 2019, 2018, 2017, etc. Reader Eric got to the point a lot faster than I ever will when he asked us this question:

How do you think the offensive line will hold up with two shaky guards?

I could offer up a shrugging emoji and end the post right here. If we’re being honest: Nobody knows.

But the question is worth at least a little more exploration because of how 2019 played out and how the Vikings head into 2020.

First, the good news: The Vikings were 10-5 in their meaningful regular-season games last year and scored a playoff upset of the Saints using a blueprint that should give them hope for this season. They converted a whopping 10 of 18 times on third down, including a handful of third-and-long situations where Cousins made plays. Other times, they largely stayed “on schedule,” including basically all of their game-winning TD drive in overtime — which culminated in a Cousins pass to Kyle Rudolph on 3rd-and-goal from the 4.

Overall, the Vikings converted on 42.4% of third downs last season — ninth-best in the NFL, after being 26th in the league in 2018 at 35.8%.

OK, are you ready for the bad news? In a lot of key games last year, the Vikings were dismal in obvious passing situations. Most notably: An early 16-6 loss to the Bears; a crushing 23-10 late loss to the Packers; and the season-ending 27-10 playoff loss to the 49ers.

In each of those games, the Vikings defense kept them in the game but the offense couldn’t get anything going. Minnesota was a combined 11 for 40 on third down in those three losses, and Cousins was sacked a combined 10 times in obvious or likely passing situations (second and long or third and long).

Much of the pressure on Cousins came up the middle, where guards Pat Elflein and Josh Kline plus center Garrett Bradbury struggled. This year Dakota Dozier replaces Kline, which would be hard to consider an upgrade. The Vikings are banking on continuity, coaching and scheme to have more success this year — hence the good question form Eric.

The trouble last year was exacerbated by two more factors: Poor run blocking grades for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison (particularly after Cook had a strong Pro Football Focus grade in 2018) and the fact that Cousins doesn’t really improvise. He ran for just 8 first downs in all of 2019. For all his strengths, perhaps Cousins’ biggest weakness is that when a play breaks down he seldom makes a play to keep the chains moving.

Those are all ingredients in a recipe that could spell doom again for the Vikings — probably not most weeks, but quite possibly when it matters most. It’s the single biggest thing limiting their ceiling, at least until proven otherwise.


©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)