Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Film Room: 49ers Opponent Quarterbacks - Vikings’ Kirk Cousins

Sep 8, 2018 at 12:16 PM

All season long, we'll be covering various 49ers quarterback opponents in this space. This week is week one opponent Kirk Cousins, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.

In 2012, the Redskins drafted quarterback Robert Griffin III of Baylor University with the 2nd overall pick after trading up with the Rams. Later in the same draft, the Redskins drafted Kirk Cousins of Michigan State University in the 4th round, 102nd overall. The move shocked observers but felt right to the Shanahans, both Mike and his son Kyle, the head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively. After the Shanahans moved on from Washington, Mike Shanahan went on the radio in Washington D.C. and expressed more or less that he was never on-board with the Griffin pick because he didn't want to move valuable draft picks.

After starting a smattering of games here and there in his first three seasons in Washington, Cousins would become the eventual starter in 2015 under 2nd year head coach Jay Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan (formerly 49ers GM) after Griffin suffered a concussion in week two of the preseason. After preseason week three that year, Gruden named Cousins the full time starter and deactivated Griffin. It later was revealed that the Redskins were using Griffin as the scout team safety and eventually they released him during the 2016 offseason, ensuring Cousins would be the near term starter.

Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Lng Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate QBR Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk% 4QC GWD AV
2012 24 WAS qb 12 3 1 1-0-0 33 48 68.8 466 4 8.3 3 6.3 77 9.7 8.6 14.1 155.3 101.6 77.7 3 27 8.61 7.53 5.9 1 1 2
2013 25 WAS qb 12 5 3 0-3-0 81 155 52.3 854 4 2.6 7 4.5 62 5.5 4 10.5 170.8 58.4 41.7 5 32 5.14 3.67 3.1 -2
2014 26 WAS qb 8 6 5 1/4/2000 126 204 61.8 1710 10 4.9 9 4.4 81 8.4 7.4 13.6 285 86.4 52 8 70 7.74 6.77 3.8 4
2015 27 WAS QB 8 16 16 9/7/2000 379 543 69.8 4166 29 5.3 11 2 78 7.7 7.8 11 260.4 101.6 71.7 26 186 6.99 7.14 4.6 2 3 12
2016* 28 WAS QB 8 16 16 8/7/2001 406 606 67 4917 25 4.1 12 2 80 8.1 8 12.1 307.3 97.2 66.1 23 190 7.52 7.45 3.7 4 4 15
2017 29 WAS QB 8 16 16 7/9/2000 347 540 64.3 4093 27 5 13 2.4 74 7.6 7.5 11.8 255.8 93.9 54.2 41 342 6.46 6.38 7.1 1 4 12
2018 30 MIN 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career 62 57 26-30-1 1372 2096 65.5 16206 99 4.7 55 2.6 81 7.7 7.5 11.8 261.4 93.7 106 847 6.98 6.75 4.8 8 12 43
Source: Pro Football Reference

At first glance, Cousins appears to be everything a team wants in a quarterback. He has the stats and experience that make him an attractive option for the position and fantasy football owners. However, after the release of Griffin, the Redskins could never reach a deal with the quarterback they viewed as their franchise player. Heading into his first free agency period, the Redskins opted to have Cousins sign the non-exclusive franchise tag. In 2017, the Redskins again tagged him, this time signing the exclusive franchise tag because a long-term deal could not be reached.

The fact that the Redskins tagged Cousins twice is alarming by itself. But McCloughan, in an interview with Jason Cole of Bleacher Report, provides an illuminating and clear reason to anyone closely following the trajectory Cousins career. He reportedly told Cousins that "we're going to build this roster to where you can be average and still be good." The former 49ers' general manager had blunt words for his starting quarterback. It's likely the reason Cousins eventually wanted to leave Washington the following season for a chance at a reunion with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.

But was McCloughan right? Was Cousins average? His numbers certainly don't tell that story. But a deeper dive into the film and some advanced statistics will provide a bit more context into that line of thinking.


First, let's look at what the quarterback does well. Two areas in which he excelled were in play action and the quick passing game.
16.9% of Cousins' passes came on play action, good for 12th in the NFL per Cian Fahey's 2017 Quarterback Catalog. Per Pro Football Focus' charting, Cousins graded 2nd overall on play action throws with a passer rating of 118.7. He threw for 1,054 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 66% completion on play action throws. Quarterbacks typically excel at play action but in the Redskins offense, play action passes give Cousins the advantage of making quick, decisive decisions.

On 2nd and five against Seattle, the Redskins come out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and are running a simple double post concept but mirrored on opposite sides. The Seahawks are running a cover one defense with a single high deep safety and man coverage on the receivers. Safety Earl Thomas (no. 29) is deep and on the hash to the closed side of the field, indicating to Cousins that Ryan Grant's post route should be open due to the outside leverage corner Shaquill Griffin (no. 26) has to the open side of the field. The post-snap shows exactly what Cousins likely saw pre-snap as defensive back Justin Coleman (no. 28) takes away the inside of the post on the opposite side. Grant catches the pass and goes for 23 yards.

Another area of strength for Cousins is that he's always been a quarterback who excels as a catch and release thrower or someone who performs better when he throws earlier in the down. Through four years as the starter, Cousins has posted higher passer ratings with 2.5 seconds or less to throw than he has with 2.6 seconds or greater, per Pro Football Focus' annual quarterback book. He is 14.2 points better with a 93.4 passer rating with 2.5 seconds or less than he is with more time in the pocket, where he grades at a 79.2 passer rating.

Against the Raiders in week three last season, he showed why he can be effective throwing quickly. If Cousins gets into a quick rhythm, he can move the ball effectively. On this play, as soon as he hits the top of his drop, he floats one over the double coverage to tight end Vernon Davis. He doesn't have the best arm strength (something we'll get later) but he has made some nice touch passes in his career, and this one was perfect.


Unfortunately a team cannot live consistently on play action and a quick passing offense, making the ability to throw the deep pass equally important. In 2016, Cousins' deep accuracy (21+ yards downfield) was graded at a 41.67%, ranked 16th. His relative success was over the middle of the field. Throughout his career, Cousins has had viable deep threat receivers in DeSean Jackson and Josh Doctson and now Stephon Diggs, in addition to tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, now Kyle Rudolph. And yet, Cousins still struggles throwing deep passes, especially outside the numbers.

In week 17 of 2016, Cousins had a chance to put his team into the playoffs with a win over the New York Giants. However, his brain and arm had different plans. Three crucial misses effectively took his team out of a playoff spot.

Cousins has never been an effective deep throwing quarterback and on several occasions he missed DeSean Jackson deep when he was wide open. Against the Giants with a playoff spot on the line, Cousins missed Jackson deep late in the 3rd quarter down the sideline.

He missed Jackson again late in the 4th that could've been a big gain on a scoring drive, potentially a touchdown as Jackson had about a three step lead on the defenders.

To seal the game, Cousins closed it out on a potentially game winning drive by throwing a terrible interception intended for Pierre Garçon that the defender undercut because the pass was behind Garçon.

Cousins' deep issues would carry on throughout the 2017 season. Per Fahey's Pre Snap Reads 2018 Quarterback catalog, in 2017, Cousins deep accuracy fell to 29.1%, ranked 26th in the league. Some of his worst passes came when throwing deep outside the numbers. On the left sideline, his accuracy was 29.4%, ranked 26th. When throwing to the right sideline, that accuracy fell to 25.6%, ranked 34th.

Against the Seahawks, Cousins threw two passes that the Seattle defense should've picked. This one down the right sideline to Josh Doctson (no. 18) on a bubble screen/fade concept was actually thrown into the waiting arms of cornerback Richard Sherman (no. 25). Fortunately for Cousins, Sherman dropped it.

And against the Seahawks in week three of the 2018 preseason, the struggles continued, as Cousins hit the back of Shaquill Griffin's (no. 26) helmet with a deep pass to Diggs instead of leading Diggs to the corner of the end zone. Whereas former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum would at least float the ball up for his receiver to make a play, Cousins doesn't even have the arm strength to do that.


Even more problematic than his deep throwing, which most quarterbacks can and usually do struggle with from season to season, is Cousins' lack of awareness and accuracy in the short to intermediate passing. Too often he either ruins a clean pocket by firing a pass too early, or shuffles around the pocket, throws late, and is wildly off target. Both usually result in the defenders being able to either pick his passes off or make pass break-ups.

These issues are compounded by his relatively weak arm. As Cousins resets in the pocket and moves on in his progression, he fires a pass out to his right to Terrelle Pryor on the curl/flat combination. He doesn't even see linebacker Nigel Bradham dropping underneath the curl route or he does but figures he can fit the ball in to Pryor anyways. Bradham (no. 53), undercuts the route and almost comes up with the interception as Cousins hits him square in the hands instead of Pryor.

It is the same issue on this play as Cousins wastes a clean pocket as he gets to the top of his drop. He looks right and throws out to tight end Jerry Sprinkle (no. 87) running down the sideline. Cornerback Justin Coleman (no. 28) has inside leverage on Sprinkle running outside the numbers to prevent an in-cutting route but Cousins doesn't even notice this as he throws. The pass is tipped up by Coleman and almost intercepted by a gang of Seahawks defenders.

Again, he's at his best when he has to get rid of the ball early in the down, but when he holds it, plays like this become the norm where he lets go a bit too early as he feels pressure that hasn't even arrived. This play was overturned on review as the defender could not come up with the interception.

However on the next play, the pass was intercepted as he wildly overthrew his target.

And he doesn't seem to be meshing well with his new receiver corps in Minnesota either. These would all be excusable throws if you could point to some obvious way in which they were working on timing, but these are throws he's regularly missed since being named the starter in 2015. The 4 plays below combine all the worst but consistent elements of his limited skill set as Cousins targeted receiver Adam Thielen three times in a recent game against Jacksonville and had a really bad pass in a game against Seattle.

The first play is Thielen's first target. Cousins was late on the throw and doesn't have the arm strength to put it on his receiver's outside shoulder to beat the undercutting defensive back. The second target is a far hash throw that Cousins rarely makes. The third throw is down the sideline outside the numbers where Cousins has never been efficient and doesn't have the accuracy or touch to consistently make this throw. The fourth throw causes Thielen to stop and turn around to catch it when it should be on the outside shoulder so Thielen can turn upfield.

For the 49ers to win this Sunday, they'll need to put Cousins in situations where he is forced into making throws he doesn't regularly make. They defended him pretty well last season in a week 6 game in Washington and I don't expect that to change much. Pressure and taking away the underneath flat and middle throws could spell disaster for the Vikings with Cousins as their full time starter this season.

All gifs courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Electrician guy
    Nice article, I've always thought that about Kirk as well. It's always looked like he is pushing his throws with his upper body instead of using those legs of his. I didn't see much velocity in his throws, if you'd like to see velocity, look up some Brett Farve videos.
    Sep 8, 2018 at 10:56 PM
  • kimon george
    FIm shows the velocity at a point in time. Apparently he can throw faster than most when he want to. TImes at tryouts are acc
    Sep 8, 2018 at 3:11 PM
    Response: Films shows consistently poor velocity and lack of arm talent and a lack of ability to control his passes as a result. But hey, I didn't just watch all his snaps from 2015 to 2018 so what would I know.
  • unbiased fan
    The weak arm comment does not jibe with Cousin's draft workouts where he was 2nd fastest with a 59 mph and the comments from the viking's coaches and the comments about his are from commenters on his preseason in 2018. Very strange.
    Sep 8, 2018 at 3:01 PM
    Response: Film doesn't lie, you can see it for yourself. But I guess if someone favorable to him says it then it must be unquestioningly true.

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