EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins walked to the podium on Thursday at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center hungry for another opportunity versus the Titans defense.
Cousins acknowledged the challenges posed by Tennessee's defense before a noon practice on another windy day. The Titans feature a fierce front seven led by two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.
"I think they did a great job," Cousins said of Tennessee. "They were No. 1 against the run last year for a reason, and I thought they did a nice job of man coverage. So I thought it was a tough test for us and great work for us."
The point of these joint practices is to go against an unfamiliar opponent after facing teammates for the first three weeks of training camp and all of OTAs. Players can grow familiar with cadences, coverage shells, and tendencies.
But against the Titans, the Vikings faced fresh looks, helping Cousins, Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and the entire offense fine-tune their ways.
"Looks can feel a little more muddy, and you're not quite sure personnel-wise what you get," Cousins said. "So, I think that's a good thing to be uncomfortable that way. And it's why these days are really important for us to get a lot out of them."
Winning the play vs. Winning in Week 1
There is a balance Cousins and the Vikings offense are trying to strike between winning a particular play, a series, or even the practice, versus readying the offense as best as possible by Week 1.
Cousins said coaches will ask what play he wants on a specific third-down look. He responds: "Well, do you want to win the play, or do you want to get ready for Week 1?"
"There are some plays that I need work at, that I may not say are my favorite right now, but I need the work. If you want to win the play, I'll give you a play I already know and don't really need to practice, and then we can win that play," Cousins said. "It goes back and forth of, 'Hey, is this practice, or is this we're trying to win the play or the series or the practice?' You're trying to find that balance."
Cousins sounds like a 12-year veteran quarterback focused on maximizing the team's micro and macro success.
After a challenging day throwing into the wind, Cousins was pinpoint on Thursday. The first-team offense scored three touchdowns in two-minute and red zone periods. All three were Cousins touchdowns. Two went to Justin Jefferson, and the other to K.J. Osborn.
Dealing with the Titans front
Things were chippy up front between Minnesota and Tennessee.
The physicality started on Wednesday and carried into Day 2. Center Garrett Bradbury set a firm tone battling against Simmons and the Titans interior defense. On Thursday, Titans defensive tackle Teair Tart was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct during an 11-on-11 red zone session after a run play where Bradbury flushed him downfield.
Tart was ejected from practice for striking Bradbury in the facemask.
In pass protection, the Vikings held their own despite playing without tackle Brian O'Neill, who the team said will likely return to action next week during joint practices with the Cardinals.
"There were a couple of things here and there, but I thought the protection and the dropback game overall was pretty solid," O'Connell said on Wednesday. "I think [Vederian] Lowe has had some real strong moments, and I think it's always a great thing when you can get your swing tackle that much work as if he was called into duty in the season."
Cousins was not sacked during the 2-minute drill at the end of Thursday's practice. He completed four consecutive passes, moving the ball 45 yards for a touchdown in less than a minute. Lowe competed against the Titans, swarming a 3-4 defensive front. He walled large ends like Denico Autry (6-foot-5, 285 pounds) and agile edges like Harold Landry III (6-2, 252 pounds).
On the inside, Ezra Cleveland matched Bradbury's intensity. He pancaked Autry during a third-down drill, helping tackle Christian Darrisaw in a 2-on-1 situation.
Gauging how Minnesota ran the ball against the Titans can be challenging. Of course, teams are not tackling. Points of contact between a ball carrier and a defender are low-intensity wrap-ups. But coaches watch for low pad level, sound technique, and sharp footwork.
"They're one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL, strong defensive interior front," O'Connell said. "I do feel like, go back and look at the tape as far as the run game was, as far as the physicality of playing against a group like that, 'How was our communication, how was our targeting, how many of those things were self-inflicted wounds vs. the runs where we got some clean things off and we're able to gain some yards?' "
Opening up Jefferson
The Titans threw an abundance of double coverage looks at Jefferson over two days. During red zone drills, Tennessee put a cornerback directly in front of the star receiver and stacked a safety 10 yards behind the corner.
Yet often, it didn't matter.
"I think we can try some things that maybe allow him to have some post-snap decisions to make based on the coverage," O'Connell said. "He's doing really well with some of those things."
Jefferson caught two touchdowns during team situations and one in a 7-on-7 drill. Each score came with two nearby defenders. But Jefferson finds ways to open versus double coverage thanks to post-snap reads. Jefferson makes split-second decisions during a play, breaking either left or right, depending on defensive positioning.
Jefferson has been running option routes for years, but the timing keeps improving as he grows accustomed to what O'Connell and Cousins are also seeing.
"Just talking to him about what he sees out there on the field. Of course, we're going over it in meetings. Of course, we come out here and are trying to perfect it. We try to execute the plays that we go over," Jefferson said. "Not everything is perfect. So just talking to him. Seeing what he wants, seeing what Kirk [Cousins] wants, and just trying to be all on the same page."