EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins compared the Vikings-Packers “special” rivalry to the likes of the strongest college head-to-heads that can pit “family against family, brother against brother.”
Instead of familial, the meeting on Sunday for Cousins will be against a couple of familiar faces: Packers first-year Head Coach Matt LaFleur and edge rusher Preston Smith.
LaFleur was Cousins’ first quarterbacks coach in the NFL. The duo worked together for two seasons from 2012-13 when Cousins was a fourth-round pick and backup quarterback in Washington.
“Matt’s from Michigan and actually vacations, or used to vacation about one town south of where I live, so we’ve kept in touch quite a bit through the years,” Cousins explained before rattling off how LaFleur had been an assistant at Central Michigan after playing quarterback at Mount Pleasant High School and Saginaw Valley State.
“We know a lot of the same people,” Cousins added. “I first met him at the combine and then was in the quarterbacks room with him for two years and learned a great deal. I’ve really kept in touch with him, probably more than I thought I would through the years. I think the world of him as a person, as a coach. I owe a great deal to him when it comes to any production I’ve had in this league. It’s a unique deal that he’s coaching our rival because in one sense, you want to pull for him, and on the other hand, you’ve got to make sure that he doesn’t one-up you.”
View practice photos from Sept. 11 as the Vikings get ready for a border battle in Green Bay.
Cousins went so far as to send a text last week, saying, “Congrats on getting your first win as a head coach, but we’re coming on Sunday.”
“And they’re coming for us,” the quarterback added Wednesday, pivoting during his media session.
Which brings us to Smith, a second-round pick by Washington in 2015 who signed with Green Bay during free agency and led the Packers with 1.5 sacks against Chicago in his debut to open the NFL’s 100th season. He has 26 career sacks.
If Smith’s name rings a prior bell, it might be because of his game against Minnesota in 2016. He returned his first career interception 22 yards with less than six minutes left and recorded 2.0 sacks against the Vikings, including one on Washington’s final defensive snap to protect a 26-20 lead.
Cousins said Smith is “a really good player, very athletic.”
“He was a second-round pick for a reason,” Cousins said. “I remember he had a big interception against the Vikings on a pressure-zone drop underneath a slant route. He is a versatile athlete like that.
“He can zone drop and rush the passer and can run with people to cover them if he has to, although that’s not why they brought him there, but he’s a big man,” Cousins added. “He can be stout in the run game and the pass game and has a ton of potential in this league.”
The Vikings were able to limit Smith’s damage the following season and prevailed 38-30.
In addition to Smith, the Packers also signed fellow edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2015 who had 8.5 of his 19.5 career sacks last season.
Adrian Amos, a fifth-round pick by Chicago in 2015, also signed with Green Bay during free agency. Amos had an interception against the Vikings at Soldier Field last November.
Throw in several high-round draft picks on the back end of the defense learning through their previous experiences, and Green Bay claimed a 10-3 win at Chicago, making LaFleur the only one of seven new coaches this year to win his debut with a team.
Cousins was asked if LaFleur displayed traits of a head-coach-to-be back in 2012-13.
“Oh yeah, he sees the game well. He’s a former quarterback, so he gets it,” Cousins said. “He understands what it’s like to play this position and has been around some great coaches, starting with Mike Shanahan, in terms of what it looks like to prepare and game-plan how you can keep defenses off balance with a run game and pass game.
“He studies it. He spent a lot of hours in the building, working and grinding,” Cousins continued. “He’s coached in the Super Bowl [LI as the Falcons quarterbacks coach]; he’s coached great quarterbacks. He’s got all of that pedigree, that experience.”
LaFleur explained that Washington considered Cousins a potential starter when they drafted him a day after tabbing QB Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick.
“We had a really high grade on him in the draft … and when he was staring at us in the fourth round, we couldn’t pass it up,” LaFleur said. “Credit to him — we got a chance to get to know him a little bit throughout the Senior Bowl process, and he is so conscientious and just a hard worker.
“His arm talent is as good as anybody in terms of, he is a natural thrower,” LaFleur said. “I think he’s fearless in the pocket. We just combined his physical skills with the type of guy he is, and we thought he was a for-sure guy that was going to be a star in this league. He’s proved it.”
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Packers.
Cousins delivered two of his most prolific performances last season against the Packers and went 1-0-1.
He was a combined 64-of-86 passing (74.4 completion percentage) for 767 yards and seven touchdowns against one interception (after a dropped pass) in his first two games in Purple against the Packers.
Those numbers produced a combined passer rating of 123.5, and the 769 passing yards in 2018 are the most by a Vikings quarterback in one season against the Packers.
Even with the familiarity heading into this matchup, Cousins knows that every season is different for each team and every week can be different in the NFL.
“The personnel is a little different. There’s still some familiar names,” Cousins said. “They had good players over there last year, but they obviously brought in a few new pieces. If anything, it’s younger players who are improving as you would expect. I’m well aware that a player who comes in this league as a first- or second-year player is not the same guy as he is in year three, four, five or beyond.
“I think they’ve had some younger players that they’ve thrown in the fire in the past, and now they’ve become smart, veteran players,” he added. “I think that shows up when you watch them against the Bears last week.”