The basic numbers for Minnesota’s passing attack Sunday in Cincinnati were strong. Kirk Cousins completed 73 percent of his passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns. Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn each had more than 70 yards receiving.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer noted that even with all of the struggles with penalties, the Vikings put up 24 points.
“So, if we eliminate some of these penalties that we had and we do a little bit better job with some of the protections that we have, then I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Zimmer said.
But it’s important to put into context that the Vikings scored those 24 points in, essentially, five quarters of play. And they did so against a Bengals team that allowed 26.5 points a game last season, 21st in the NFL.
Yes, the Vikings crushed themselves with the penalties, but they also didn’t make any big plays on offense. The passing offense was void of any deep shots down the field. Cousins’ passes were an average of 5.4 yards behind the first-down markers, second-worst in the NFL in Week 1, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. His throws traveled an average distance of 6.1 yards in the air, sixth-lowest among qualifying quarterbacks.
That’s befuddling in a game in which the Vikings encountered a number of 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations that required chunk plays to move the sticks.
“We always want to be an explosive offense, so we’re always going to look for opportunities to do that,” Cousins said Wednesday. “I think when you get in longer yardage, the defense is going to be smart and play the sticks and keep things in front of them, whether it’s a 2-minute drill with little time left and teams know that they can back up.
“And if you’re in long yardage, they can back up. So, they kept things in front of them for the most part. It would’ve been probably a lot of long foul balls or tight looks if we had tried to go down the field on many of the plays.”
Tight windows were not what Cousins was looking to throw into last Sunday. Only 10.1 percent of his throws were to receivers who had a defender within one yard, again in the bottom third of the League. Instead, the signal caller played it safe and took what the defense gave him. That will win you a number of football games, but maybe not the ones in which you have significant obstacles to overcome.
ESPN’s QBR formula graded Cousins’ performance as such. Its stat titled PAA — which tallies the points a quarterback added over an average signal caller — gave Cousins a minus-0.7. That ranked Cousins 20th among Week 1 quarterbacks.
Part of that equation was Cousins taking three sacks and losing 26 yards in the process. Part of it was there weren’t many plays in which Cousins added value. Deep shots are game-changers that the Vikings’ went without, even when they needed them. There was little risk, and little reward.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the play that changed the game in the Chiefs’ 33-29 victory over Cleveland came with 10 minutes left in the final frame, with the Browns leading 29-20. Patrick Mahomes rolled right on 1st and 10 and, while on the move, launched a deep ball in the general direction of Tyreek Hill. The pass didn’t hit Hill in stride by any means, but the all-world wideout adjusted to the ball and scored a 75-yard touchdown.
Mahomes was later asked if there are times where he just fires the ball in the general direction of Hill, even when there doesn’t seem to be much there.
“Sometimes, you’ve just got to throw it up,” he told reporters. “(Hill is) a little dude, but he goes and catches it, and he’s pretty fast, and usually good things happen.”
The Vikings don’t possess a Tyreek Hill, but Adam Thielen has long been one of the League’s top talents, and Justin Jefferson is a rising superstar. You don’t always see the Vikings’ talented receiving core get the same opportunities to make plays in difficult spots.
“When you hold the football, you’ve got a lot of people who put their trust in you. So, you need to be discerning,” Cousins said. “There is no science to it. … You play a long time and you learn when to do it and when not to. That’s part of what reps and playing quarterback for a long time teach you, what you can get away with and what you can’t. That’s kind of the journey I’ve been on for 15 years going back to early in college.”