EAGAN, Minn. — Count Kirk Cousins among those who love joint practices.
The Vikings quarterback and his offensive teammates went against Jacksonville’s defense Wednesday and will do so again Thursday before the teams play each other at noon (CT) Saturday.
Cousins met with the media after Thursday’s walk-through and said there is an advantage for both teams to practice together, as each side gets better while also getting prepared for regular-season action.
“I think, if anything, it’ll be a greater level of familiarity. It’s the best possible scout team you could ever have leading into a game, to actually go against the defense,” Cousins said. “I’ve only done this once before. It’ll be interesting to see how it feels on Saturday having already related to these guys for a couple of days.
“Certainly in the preseason you’re normally not very familiar, so I think from that standpoint it should be somewhat of a help going into the game,” Cousins said.
It also helps that the Jaguars boast one of the league’s top defenses. Jacksonville finished second in points and yards allowed in 2017, only trailing the Vikings.
Cousins said getting a stiff test from a defense other than the Vikings will only help Minnesota’s offensive progression going forward.
“I think the key is that there are subtle differences in the defense in terms of being more of a match coverage team, being more of a zone-drop team with your eyes on the quarterback,” Cousins said. “What that does to my progressions and my reads and who ends up getting the ball. We found yesterday that there’s probably a greater number of check-downs, of settling for a completion as opposed to getting a home run, because of the nature of their defense.
“I think all of that is important, even just making certain checks in the run game based on their fronts and understanding that this is a different look than our defense would give us. Some of the runs that were really good for us against our defense are not as good against their defense,” Cousins added. “Learning all that, it’s a great reminder of why practice is so important every week during the season because each defense has those nuances that, if you’re not on top of it, will make for a long day on Sundays.”
Here are four other takeaways from Cousins’ podium session Thursday:
1. Welcome home
Saturday’s game against Jacksonville will be Cousins’ first appearance in Purple in front of the raucous crowd inside U.S. Bank Stadium.
Cousins said while he has been inside the stadium a few times, he said he is looking forward to embracing the electric atmosphere that awaits.
“It’s interesting that I’ve been here, for what seems like a while now, and yet haven’t really played in the stadium, which is what we’re here to do,” Cousins said. “The little bit that I’ve been there, it’s a great facility.
“I’m just so excited to hear the crowd and go through warmups and just get a feel for the game-day dynamic,” Cousins added. “I’m sure it’s going to be second to none in the NFL.”
Of course, the last time the Vikings played at U.S. Bank Stadium, wide receiver Stefon Diggs created the moment of a lifetime with ‘The Minneapolis Miracle’ to secure a 29-24 win over New Orleans in a Divisional Round playoff game.
Cousins, who said he was watching with family in Atlanta at the time, recalled his own reaction to one of the wildest finishes in NFL history.
“I was watching and was blown away like everyone else,” Cousins said. “The look on my face was probably similar to Everson Griffen’s or some other guys on the field that night.
“I think, if nothing else, it should galvanize our fan base to be excited for this season and hopefully create many more moments similar to that in the year and the years ahead,” Cousins added.
2. Dissecting the Denver drive
Cousins will likely see more snaps on Saturday than the eight he took on Minnesota’s 75-yard touchdown drive against Denver in the Vikings preseason opener.
The quarterback completed all four of his passes for 42 yards and ended the series with a 1-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Cousins said the drive was sparked with a pair of 20-plus yard runs by running back Latavius Murray, and he noted how an effective run game helps makes his job a lot easier.
“I think the luxury you can look at that first drive in Denver,” Cousins said. “Again, small sample size, but when you look at it you say, ‘Alright, we had a penalty on a screen on second down and now we are way behind the chains backed up.’ We hit a big run. Now we are back to first down again.
“I never had to convert a third down, I never had to take a seven-step drop and rope a seam ball. I just handed it off and watched us get across midfield. You can say after the game, ‘You played great as a quarterback.’ But we had some explosive runs,” Cousins added. “We basically only had one third down, and it was a third-and-1 on the 1-yard line. That is a big difference than having to convert a bunch of third-and-7s or third-and-10s. When you have a good run game, you can stay out of the third-and-longs. You won’t have to deal with the hard pass rush, and now a lot more of your offense is open to you.”
3. Play-action perfection
Jacksonville All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey is not in Minnesota for practices and won’t play Saturday because he was suspended by the Jaguars for the week.
Ramsey recently had high praise for Cousins, especially when talking about the quarterback’s ability with play-action passes.
Cousins on Thursday said he hadn’t heard Ramsey’s comments, but gave a lengthy answer on how and why play action can be successful for an offense.
“It really goes back to a cliché answer, but it is the right answer, that is it takes everybody. The game plan has to be good plays,” Cousins said. “You can run play actions, but if they’re bad route concepts, poorly designed protections, you can have a great fake and have all the intentions of making the right throw, it’s not going to work. If the plays are designed correctly and then your protection is loose, guys aren’t holding up. The running back doesn’t have a good mesh.
“Even as a quarterback, you can do all you want to do, it’s not going to work. When the line can protect, the concept is good, the running back has a great mesh, the receivers can run with speed and create separation,” Cousins added. “That is when a play action offense can really be effective. It takes all 11 plus the scheme to really come together and make it work.”
Cousins then divulged how much extra preparation and study time goes into making sure he is on point with play actions, even saying he studies himself from the defense’s point of view.
“I think you want to watch tape of yourself from the camera angle being at linebacker level,” Cousins said. “You want to see what it looks like from a linebacker’s point of view, my action, and then what does my run game look like from that point of view and how dissimilar or similar are they.
“If the right guard on a run play is firing off the ball and then on a play-action pass is setting, I can fake as hard as I want, but the linebacker is going to feel that difference in the offensive lineman’s demeanor. Making sure your linemen are firing off with low pad levels, even if they’re not going down the field to make a block to still give that illusion initially really helps,” Cousins added. “You got to have a good mesh with the running back. Although he’s looking in protection and has to have his eyes on the pass game, to be able to really sell that mesh like he’s trying to run the football makes a big difference. Then you obviously have to show the ball, snap that ball back and then get your eyes up.”
4. Lots of options
The run-pass option (RPO) is a play that continues to gain popularity across the NFL as it tries to keep the defense off balance.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo has sprinkled some RPOs into Minnesota’s playbook since arriving this offseason, and Cousins said he has been hard at work learning how both sides of the ball find success with the play design.
“I think like any other play it takes a feel, it takes reps, it takes time, and so the more you can put time on task and build a foundation of an understanding of the different looks and the challenges and how a defense tries to counter RPOs, the better off you are,” Cousins said. “Then when you get into a game and get the unique look you can say, ‘I’ve seen this before, I know what to do or how we answer it.’
“But if you don’t have that time on task and you get some exotic looks it can become hard to know, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ ” Cousins added. “I know the base looks but I don’t know the wrinkle to it, so we’re just trying to get all the wrinkles worked out and work through the different looks we could get so when they are called we’re ready to answer.”