NFL

Is Kirk Cousins holding the Vikings back?

By Sports Desk December 04, 2021

When the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed contract back in 2018, they believed they were landing a quarterback who put them over the top and could help them deliver a first Super Bowl title.

What they actually acquired, however, was perhaps the league's ultimate enigma at quarterback.

Nobody could look at Cousins' raw numbers and deem him a bad quarterback. Yet throughout his career both with the Vikings and beforehand in Washington, he is a player who has continued to confound, most notably with an apparent inability to deliver in 'clutch' situations with the game on the line.

Cousins' time as a pro was arguably encapsulated by his showing in Week 12. In the most important game of a season in which he has the best touchdown to interception ratio in the NFL, Cousins came up dismally small, a series of poor throws and a turnover dooming the Vikings to defeat against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Vikings are not without their problems in other areas. However, with the weapons around Cousins, theirs is an infrastructure seemingly conducive to quarterback success.

In terms of his statistics, Cousins has largely succeeded in 2021. Yet baffling performances like the one that dropped the Vikings to 5-6 last week only serve to give rise to the debate around Cousins and whether he is holding his team back.

Cousins' San Francisco slump

Already over 3,000 yards passing with six games still to play, with 23 touchdowns and a career-low three interceptions to his name, statistically the 2021 campaign ranks among Cousins' finest seasons.

Delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 80.8 per cent of his pass attempts, above the league average of 78.4, and throwing a pickable pass on 10 out of his 385 attempts, Stats Perform's advanced metrics also reflect well on Cousins.

But it is that apparent season-long consistency that makes displays like his showing against San Francisco all the more bemusing.

Cousins has done an excellent job of taking care of the football this season, yet his third interception of the year came in the third quarter against the Niners as he somehow failed to spot linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair crowding his throwing lane on an attempted pass to Adam Thielen. As far as failures to correctly read the field go, that was as bad as it gets.

That interception set the Niners up to take a 28-14 lead, a gap the Vikings were unable to bridge in large part because of inaccurate throws by Cousins.

He led the Vikings on a touchdown drive on the next series only to then miss a wide-open Justin Jefferson on a two-point conversion try with a low throw.

Jefferson was the target on a fourth-down throw in the fourth quarter that sailed well over his head, that play coming after Minnesota burned a timeout due to Cousins lining up behind the right guard instead of the center.

Cousins is not the first quarterback to accidentally line up in the wrong spot in the heat of the moment, but such a gaffe gives the impression of a signal-caller ill-equipped to deliver when the pressure is at its highest.

And, given the performance of the surrounding weapons, it is no wonder Jefferson was left throwing his arms up in disbelief at some of Cousins' misses.

Stacked supporting cast

Any thought of Jefferson taking a step back after a historic 2020 season that saw him break the rookie record for receiving yards has been put to bed.

Jefferson is on pace to surpass his tally of 1,400 yards from last year and, among wide receivers with at least 25 targets, he ranks seventh in burn percentage, which measures the rate at which a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, while he is 11th with a big play rate of 39 per cent.

Thielen, who had a pair of touchdowns against San Francisco, has also excelled at creating big plays, doing so on 34.6 per cent of his targets.

With K.J. Osborn emerging as a legitimate third receiving option and Tyler Conklin enjoying a career year at tight end, Cousins possesses one of the best groups of pass-catchers in the NFL and is supported by a run game that has produced 37 runs of 10 yards or more, the 12th-most in the league.

The potential absence of Dalvin Cook with a shoulder injury may reduce the assistance Cousins gets from the ground attack, but he is certainly in no position to complain about a stacked supporting cast, though he may be frustrated by a lack of help from other areas.

The Vikings' fatal flaw

Cousins' sack numbers have drastically improved this season. After taking 39 sacks last year, he has suffered only 15 across 11 games in 2021, pointing to an improvement on the offensive line.

Yet a deeper assessment at the O-Line's performance suggests there may be a hint of fortune about the Vikings' success in preventing sacks.

Indeed, Cousins has attempted 136 passes under pressure, second only to Matt Ryan (145), while the Vikings rank a lowly 28th in pass protection win rate.

More often than not, the Vikings are losing the battle in the trenches, and that is the case on the defensive side of the ball, too.

Continually bullied off the ball by the 49ers' superb rushing attack, the Vikings gave up 208 yards on the ground at an average of 5.3 yards per attempt.

Though San Francisco's run game has dominated several teams this season, the Vikings' inability to stop them was in keeping with a theme of their season.

They rank 26th in opponent yards per play allowed with 5.87 and are giving up 4.83 yards per rush, the most in the NFL. In Stats Perform's rush yards under expected allowed, the Vikings are also 26th.

Minnesota's severe underperformance in containing opposing run games has a two-pronged effect. It has contributed to a defensive effort that has the Vikings giving up 25.1 points per game - with only eight teams conceding more - and allowed opponents to control the clock as the 49ers did last Sunday.

Cousins' inability to make the key throws and that dismal interception undoubtedly played a critical role in Minnesota coming up short in Week 12, but the massive disadvantage in time of possession that resulted from San Francisco's run game dominance, along with a fumble from Cook as he suffered his injury, limited opportunities for the passing game to turn things around.

That a quarterback of Cousins' experience and undoubted talents continues to throw in these sporadic head-scratching showings is a legitimate problem for the Vikings. However, they are too infrequent for him to be considered as holding Minnesota back.

The reality is that, between the amount of points they are giving up and Minnesota's ineffectiveness against the run, the Vikings - for all their strengths on offense - aren't in a position to survive Cousins' off days.

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  • Doncic leads Dallas into tussle with fellow form team Phoenix Doncic leads Dallas into tussle with fellow form team Phoenix

    Two teams in the NBA are on league-leading four-game winning streaks heading into Thursday's schedule. The pair face one another at American Airlines Center.

    The Phoenix Suns have pulled clear of the Golden State Warriors at the top of the West, their league-best record improving to 34-9 while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Co are .500 across their past 10 games.

    But this latest Suns run has been matched by the Dallas Mavericks, who are again recovering from a slow start.

    The Mavs have won 10 of their past 11 outings after a 16-18 start. In 2020-21, Dallas recovered from an early 8-13 record to take the fifth seed – the same position they again occupy.

    Dallas' problems prior to these recoveries have undoubtedly been linked to Luka Doncic, their sensational superstar who has tended to end seasons in more impressive fashion than he begins them.

    Doncic has been the preseason MVP favourite in consecutive years but each time showed up looking a little out of shape.

    The Slovenian is not denying that, saying in December: "I had a long summer. I had the Olympics, took three weeks off and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much. I've just got to get back on track."

    But there are signs now that Doncic is delivering as promised. Having returned from an ankle injury to feature in nine of the Mavs' past 10 games, he had a year-high 41 points last time out against the Toronto Raptors. Three of his five triple-doubles for the year have come in this period, too.

    Will this improvement continue against Phoenix, though?

    The Suns are 5-0 against Dallas across the past two seasons, albeit all five meetings (three last year, two this year) have come during those tricky starts for the Mavs.

    Since themselves returning to contention, Phoenix have not yet played a Mavs team in their groove.

    PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

    Dallas Mavericks – Kristaps Porzingis

    The Suns have a wealth of talent, while Dallas too often have only had Doncic. The need for a second man to step up and help the two-time All-NBA First Team selection is evident. Porzingis is the obvious candidate.

    While the Mavs struggled while Doncic was out, Porzingis has shown that he can play the role of leading man when required.

    His usage rate of 28.6 per cent this year is the highest it has been since he moved to Dallas – explained by Doncic's lay-off – and the knock-on effect is an increased offensive output when the simple option of passing the ball to his team-mate is removed.

    Porzingis has scored 22.8 points per game Doncic has missed this season, versus 18.6 when he has played. Even including those the pair have played together, Porzingis' offense improves from 29.8 points per 100 possessions with Doncic to 35.4 without.

    Doncic's high usage (36.3 per cent, the highest in the NBA among those involved in 250 or more possessions) reduces Porzingis' role significantly at times, but Dallas need both to fire against a team like the Suns.

    Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

    Nominally a point guard, Doncic is more of a point forward, hogging most of the shots himself. In truth, there are few genuine point guards remaining in the NBA. Paul is one of them.

    Even at 36, Paul has started all 43 games – ranking 21st in the league for minutes (1,383) – and leads the NBA in assists (429), well clear of second-placed James Harden (390). Not since 2015-16 has he averaged this rate of 10.0 assists per game.

    Given the frequency with which Paul is creating shots for team-mates, his assist-to-turnover ratio is even more impressive, ranking second with 4.38 dimes per turnover.

    With Curry and the Warriors slightly on the wane, Paul could soon be in serious consideration for the MVP award. A big performance in a big game such as this one would aid his cause.

    KEY BATTLE – Doncic to deliver in Ayton's absence?

    The Suns will be without center Deandre Ayton, the player they selected first overall in 2018 before Doncic went two picks later.

    Ayton, who has an ankle injury, was a little slower than Doncic to truly establish himself but has never struggled against the Mavs, enjoying a 10-1 record in such matchups.

    Doncic missed Phoenix's first two wins against Dallas this season and has only three victories in the 11 games he has played versus the Suns.

    With Ayton's role in Phoenix's recent success starting to alter the narrative around the 2018 draft, in which Doncic was quickly considered the most talented young player, the Dallas man may see this as an opportunity to send a message.

    HEAD TO HEAD

    This had been a closely fought rivalry until the Suns' dominance in the Ayton-Doncic years. Now, Phoenix boast a 93-74 record against the Mavs and will hope to improve that further on the road.

    Dallas are a more impressive 47-36 in home games against the Suns.

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    Ousmane Dembele's Barcelona career appears to be drawing to a close, with the club's director of football Mateu Alemany confirming on Thursday that he is up for sale.

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    Dembele has struggled to establish himself as a key player at Barca due to injuries and some reported attitude issues, albeit he has hardly been at Camp Nou during the most stable period.

    He has managed 31 goals and 22 assists in 129 appearances since his debut in September 2017, meaning he has been directly involved in 0.63 goals per 90 minutes, but he has played in just 52 per cent of Barca's LaLiga matches in that time.

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    PSG

    A team reported to hold a firm interest is Ligue 1 giants PSG. It would be ironic should Dembele – the man signed by Barca to replace Neymar – ended up playing alongside the Brazil star in Paris.

    PSG already, of course, have a star-studded attack. But with Kylian Mbappe expected to leave at the end of the season and Lionel Messi, Neymar and Angel Di Maria not getting any younger, Dembele could provide a relatively cost-effective replacement, and a return to France might reignite his career.

    Bayern Munich

    Or could a move back to the Bundesliga be the trick for Dembele? Bayern Munich have plenty of top-quality wing options, with Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman, who has just signed a new long-term deal, complimented by youngster Jamal Musiala. Yet in all competitions this season, Dembele has created 2.4 chances per 90 minutes played, and that is better than any of Bayern's current wingers other than Sane (2.6).

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    Borussia Dortmund

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    Juventus

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    Newcastle United

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    He added: "I played with Dominique [Wilkins], and I don't know if I've seen that. 

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    Embiid amassed his half-century and 10 rebounds quicker than any NBA player since 1955.

    He spent only 58 seconds on court in the final quarter after swinging the game firmly in Philadelphia's favour, moving them to 26-18 in fifth spot in the Eastern Conference.

    Magic acting head coach Jesse Mermuys doffed his cap to Embiid, saying it was impossible to contain him.

    He said: "With the way he was playing, there was really no way to go get him. He hit fadeaways, step-backs. I mean, he was impressive."

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