Kirk Cousins certainly silenced some critics Sunday night.
He may not have racked up 400 yards, but the Vikings quarterback made big plays when it mattered, moved the pocket and protected the football on a prime-time stage in Dallas.
“I thought he played great tonight,” Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said during his postgame presser. “He put the ball in the right place, he made some really good throws, [and] he had some throwaways that were good. I thought he played really well. And he got hit a lot, too.”
Cousins expected a “really good” Dallas pass rush and felt the heat he anticipated.
“Demarcus Lawrence got in there one time and made a good play on a third down, and then we felt them all night,” said Cousins. “I think why they’ve had success and why they’re so highly ranked on defense is because that pass rush is really getting after quarterbacks.
“When we were able to run the football well, it helped nullify that, not having to drop back as much, and then when we drop back, even the two-minute drill at the end of the half, much of it was getting the ball out pretty quickly to not give them a chance to get home,” he added.
And while he did face a lot of pressure by the Cowboys D-line, Cousins was sacked only once for a loss of 9 yards in the Vikings win.
Left tackle Riley Reiff talked postgame about the skirmishes at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a battle when you’re going against a front like that. Give them credit, they got a few [pressures],” Reiff said. “But Kirk did a heck of a job getting the ball out of his hands, guys getting open. The backs blocking, too. Team effort.”
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski put Cousins and Co. in place to find a way to sidestep an aggressive pass rush: screens.
Cousins connected on big screen passes to a number of targets throughout the night, including running back Dalvin Cook and rookie tight end Irv Smith, Jr.
“I just think they’ve always been really good, hard pass rushers, and when you rush with intent, sometimes you can slip a screen behind them,” Cousins said. “And they did some things with coverage in the second half to take away screens – twice they did a good job bottling it up because of the coverage they were in.
“So it’s a little bit of a back-and-forth, trying to get them in the right coverage so you can have some success running them,” he continued. “But when you’re rushing that hard and really affect the passer, then sometimes screens are the answer.”
Cousins and the Vikings balanced the passing game with the rushing attack. He took what was available and largely avoided trouble.
View postgame celebration images from Sunday as the Vikings beat the Cowboys by a 28-24 score.
“We did get the edge a couple times, and that helped. We didn’t hit any big explosives on the bootlegs, but they were there for the most part, and I think it helped to change the spot you’re throwing from just so that they can’t pin their ears back,” he said. “We didn’t want to get in the drop-back game here on the road; I think that would have been a nightmare.”
Eight different Vikings caught passes from Cousins, who finished the evening 23-of-32 for 220 yards, with two touchdowns (both to Kyle Rudolph) and no interceptions for a passer rating of 111.5. The second-quarter play in which he was sacked initially was ruled a fumble but was changed to an incomplete pass after review.
Cousins has been intercepted just once since Week 3, and Sunday marked his fourth straight game without committing a turnover of any kind.
Asked about the clean play as of late, he pointed to a number of factors, the first being as simple as self-improvement.
“I’m getting better every year, so even though I’m in year eight, I think I’m better than I was in year seven,” Cousins said. “Some of it’s just getting better as a football player – having gone through more experiences, learning what it means to protect the football. Secondly, I think we’re protecting well, which gives me a chance to see the defense and not have to take guesses because I’m not having time to see it out.”
He also noted that success running the ball decreases passing plays and putting the ball “in harm’s way” altogether.
After Minnesota struggled to get the ground game going at Kansas City last week, 153 rushing yards at Dallas enabled Stefanski to open up the Vikings offense in a fashion Cousins is grateful for, albeit unaccustomed to.
“It’s just unique. I haven’t played in a team in the NFL that does this,” Cousins said. “I’ve never been able to run the ball that well, been a part of running the ball that well, so it’s new to me.”
The veteran quarterback had plenty of outside doubters heading into the Vikings second consecutive road game, including from NBC analysts who unanimously predicted the Cowboys to win.
“Winning is all that matters,” Cousins said. “I look at it as, ‘How am I contributing, how am I playing?’ I think I’ve played well in prime time. Have we won them all? No. But to get this one was a great step in the right direction. Hopefully we can get a few more here. We’re going to get a few more before the season ends.”
The victory improved the Vikings to 7-3 as they return home and prepare to host the Broncos at U.S. Bank Stadium next Sunday.
Cousins acknowledged the favorable position but emphasized that the final stretch of games will write Minnesota’s 2019 story.
“People remember how you finish; they kind of forget how you start. We have to make sure that the finish is strong,” he said. “I think that our start has been fast enough to put us in a position – there’s certainly games and plays you want back, for sure – but it’s been fast enough to put us in a position now where we can do something.
“We’re going to have to go earn it in the second half,” he added.