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Vikings’ Kirk Cousins stands up to pressure, but Patriots provide challenge

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws a pass during the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Oct. 28, 2018. Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- Before joining the Vikings, Kirk Cousins had plenty of experience running for his life. Last season in Washington, Cousins was sacked 41 times for an NFL-high 312 lost yards.

Now in his first year with Minnesota, Cousins is on pace to be sacked … 41 times.

Cousins already has been dropped 28 times this season, 11th most among NFL quarterbacks. But it could be a lot worse considering Pro Football Focus ranks Cousins as the most pressured quarterback in the NFL.

Overall, Cousins has done a good job despite being under so much duress. The analytics site ranks him as the NFL’s fourth-most efficient quarterback when pressured.

The key to remaining poised?

“Keeping your eyes downfield, feeling the rush, not seeing the rush,’’ he said. “Throwing with accuracy. Making sure you’re still stepping in to throw as best as you can. When you can’t step into it, still being able to bring your hips and your shoulders.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins has been pressured an NFL-high 201 times this season, roughly 40 percent of his dropbacks. The Vikings, with Case Keenum as the primary quarterback, allowed 220 pressures all of last season. They’re on pace for 292 this year.

Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill said the offensive linemen are committed to protecting Cousins the best they can. But when there are breakdowns, they’re relieved at the poise Cousins has shown.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of thought process for a guy like (Cousins) because he’s been doing it at such a high level for such a long time,’’ O’Neill said of the seven-year veteran. “He does a really good job of hitting the checkdowns and knowing when he’s got to run and knowing when he can kind of sit in there a little more. But we’ve got to try to keep him clean as much as we can.”

The line was solid in last Sunday’s 24-17 win over Green Bay. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was pressured 19 times, roughly his average during this season, but he was sacked just twice. He completed 29 of 38 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and had a season-high passer rating of 129.5.

“(The line) did a great job, and when you’re able to go through your reads, step up, have a clean pocket, deliver the throws without any pressure around you, it helps you be more accurate, it helps you be more consistent,” said Cousins, fifth in the NFL with 3,289 passing yards and ninth with 22 touchdown passes.

On Sunday, Dec. 2, at New England (8-3), Cousins might not get the same protection he did against the Packers (4-6-1), who lost for the fourth time in five games. The Patriots only have 17 sacks, 30th in the NFL, but have regularly disrupted opposing quarterbacks.

“They’re like third in the league in quarterback pressures and knockdowns and things like that, but they have not been getting a lot of sacks,’’ Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “As I’ve said many times, sacks aren’t the most important thing, it’s trying to get pressure on the quarterback. They are blitzing a little more this year than I’ve seen from them in the past.”

The Patriots are tied for fourth in NFL with 12 interceptions and tied for 11th with six fumble recoveries. Cousins’ issue with turnovers has been well documented; he leads the NFL with six lost fumbles and has thrown seven interceptions. Defensive pressure has played a role in most of those turnovers.

Cousins’ Pro Football Focus efficiency ranking of 68.3 while facing pressure ranks him fourth in the NFL among quarterbacks with 100 or more dropbacks, but Zimmer doesn’t need numbers to tell him Cousins has done well under duress.

“I don’t look at those stats,” the coach said. “Somebody told me about those stats, but I just look at his overall body of work and I like what he’s doing, the toughness that he plays with, the competitiveness.”