Kirk Cousins was the NFL’s least consequential quarterback during the first quarter of the 2019 season. And that, my friends, is putting it charitably.
The truth is the Minnesota Vikings didn’t need a passing game in their two wins this season, instead riding tailback Dalvin Cook for a combined 221 yards and three touchdowns in those games. When they did need it, however, Cousins fell far short of any conceivable standard for a quarterback who was guaranteed $84 million during free agency in 2018. He has fumbled four times in the Vikings’ two losses, while throwing two interceptions and taking seven sacks. Worse, he has demonstrated no capacity to transcend the adversity and lift the Vikings beyond where they would otherwise go.
Cousins’ Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 29.2 ranks No. 32 of 33 qualified quarterbacks, below everyone but the injured Cam Newton. And he has never looked worse in a Vikings uniform than he did in Sunday’s 16-6 loss to the Bears, prompting fair questions about whether the franchise botched its quarterback transition following a 2017 trip to the NFC Championship Game.
And that’s where we’ll start ESPN’s Week 4 Quarterback Awards, our Tuesday assessment of highs and lows using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.
Sacked six times and under pressure on 33.3% of his dropbacks, Cousins quickly lost the patience and confidence to allow downfield passes to develop. Although he averaged 2.69 seconds in the pocket per dropback, the second-highest mark of Week 4, Cousins’ average pass traveled 4.8 yards short of the line to gain. That’s an exceptionally conservative figure, and it suggests at least some of the pressure was a result of holding onto the ball too long. The only quarterback in Week 4 whose passes were shorter relative to the sticks was Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (4.9 yards).
So while Cousins completed 27 of his 36 passes Sunday, the Vikings didn’t accomplish much. They gained a first down on only 25% of his attempts, the fifth-lowest mark of the week. Most egregiously, Cousins missed receiver Adam Thielen on what would have been a 47-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Thielen had put 1.7 yards between himself and Bears cornerback Kendall Fuller, after the Bears had put six defenders in the box, according to NFL Next Gen Stats research.
It’s only fair to point out that the Vikings’ pass protection has been poor all season and ranks No. 28 in the league in pass block win rate. The Bears, meanwhile, rank No. 8 in the NFL with a 31.7% pressure rate. But Cousins has now been involved in two completely ineffectual games against NFC North rivals. Have the Vikings already seen what they’re going to get from Cousins, for good and for bad, with nearly 60% of his three-year contract still ahead of him?
Were it not for a pick-six that gave the Rams late life, Sunday would have been the best game of Winston’s NFL life. As it was, he produced an 89.5 Total QBR, the highest in the NFL in Week 4, along with 385 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The Rams tried to befuddle Winston with the blitz, even after he threw three touchdowns against it in Week 3 against the Giants. Instead, Winston torched it once again. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 150 yards and another three touchdowns when the Rams blitzed.
Those blitzes helped Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians scheme up some wide-open receivers. Based on NFL Next Gen Stats data, Winston threw 19 passes when his target had at least 3 yards of separation. He completed 16 of them for 225 yards and two scores. Overall, Winston had a target open by at least 3 yards on 46% of his attempts.
The Rams bet that he couldn’t or wouldn’t stand tall enough against pressure to deliver the ball. He did, and future opponents should take note.
Trailing by four points late in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, Stafford fired a 34-yard, back-shoulder throw to receiver Marvin Hall down the left sideline. It was the kind of pass that at once takes your breath and then immediately slips from your mind as a typically wild Lions fourth quarter continued.
The ball traveled 42.2 yards in the air from Stafford’s hands to Hall’s, according to NFL Next Gen Stats research, and floated in the air for 2.25 seconds, third-longest for a throw in Week 4. Hall made the catch with Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward just 0.7 yards away. All told, NFL Next Gen Stats evaluated the pass with the lowest completion percentage possibility (22.9%) of all receptions in Week 4. Here’s the play, presented by animations from NFL Next Gen Stats:
The Lions took the lead two plays later on Kenny Golladay‘s 6-yard scoring reception, only to see the Chiefs flip the score one more time. Had Detroit’s defense held, Stafford’s pass to Hall would have been a game-defining — if not season-defining — play. But stopping Patrick Mahomes is no easy chore. Speaking of which …
There were no fancy no-look passes Sunday in Detroit, nor were there any stupendous feats of arm strength. But in leading the Chiefs to a 34-30 comeback victory, Mahomes made a subtle adjustment against an unusual Lions defensive front.
For much of the game, Mahomes struggled when the Lions used a three-man pass rush, completing only 5 of 11 passes for 73 yards. But on the winning drive, he completed 3 of 5 attempts for 33 yards against it while also scrambling twice for a total of 16 yards. One of those runs converted a fourth-and-8 with 1 minute, 32 seconds remaining.
In total, Mahomes accounted for three first downs and 62% of the Chiefs’ yardage during the final drive against that defense. How did he do it? Instead of forcing the ball 10 yards or more downfield, as he had done on seven earlier attempts, he kept his throws short. There were two key plays. One was a 7-yard toss to tight end Travis Kelce, who ran another 11 yards downfield to the Lions’ 33-yard line. The other was a 5-yard throw to receiver Byron Pringle, who took it another eight yards to the Lions’ 3-yard line with 30 seconds remaining.
The Lions use three-man rushes more than any other NFL team, a total of 55 dropbacks this season, more than twice the next-highest team. It took Mahomes some time, but like any other defense the NFL cooks up for him, he found a way to beat it.
A pet peeve of just about everyone who watches the Titans is how careful they seem to be with Mariota, and how that actually works to his disadvantage. Entering Week 4, Mariota had dropped back on only seven first-down plays in the first quarter of games. Only one other quarterback with three starts had thrown less, the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (six).
That left Mariota with more dropbacks with at least six yards to go on second or third down (63) than all but one other NFL quarterback. Second- or third-and-long are difficult downs to put any passer in, and Mariota produced only 13 first downs while taking nine sacks in those situations.
But on Sunday in Atlanta, the Titans mixed it up. Mariota dropped back four times on first down in the first quarter, completing two passes in those situations, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to receiver A.J. Brown.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 29, 2019
The Titans held a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter and did not relinquish it in a 24-10 victory. And only four quarterbacks had fewer than Mariota’s 15 dropbacks on second- or third-and-6 or greater. Mission accomplished.