MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins escaped the pressure in the pocket and rolled to his right, each of his receivers covered by San Francisco 49ers defenders.
The Minnesota Vikings were facing a third-and-1 from the 16-yard line and Cousins likely couldn’t run away from the pursuing defensive lineman for the first down. Cousins, Minnesota’s $84 million man at quarterback sent a pass, side-armed, to tight end David Morgan.
Morgan, who caught 10 passes all of last season, was blanketed by a defender, but Cousins put the ball on Morgan’s fingertips and the tight end known mostly for his blocking acumen hauled in the reception for a first down.
Two plays later, Cousins found his other tight end, Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone for their first connection of the regular season for a 23-6 lead. With pressure in his face, Cousins stood tall and delivered the touchdown to his big tight end as safety Jacquiski Tartt had his back to the play chasing Rudolph.
The trust and cohesiveness between quarterback and receivers were on point in the Vikings’ 24-16 win against San Francisco on Sunday.
“If you’re not really accurate and you don’t have that confidence to let it rip, you’re going to be holding the ball and get sacked, you’re going to be spraying it everywhere,” Cousins said. “If you’re waiting for guys to get open, you’re going to be waiting a long time. You got to throw guys open and put it in a catchable spot.”
Cousins was 20-of-36 passing for 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
While Cousins found cohesion with teammates, it was a struggle for Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo finished 15 for 33 for 261 yards and a touchdown pass late in the third quarter.
He was unable to complete a comeback in the fourth after Minnesota produced three consecutive three-and-out possessions to start the final quarter.
Garoppolo was playing behind a depleted offensive line and also lost top wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin exited with a right quadriceps injury in the first injury while right guard Mike Person and replacement Joshua Garnett exited with foot injuries, furthering hampering a line who had three reserves inactive.
Cousins connected with Stefon Diggs for a 22-yard touchdown at the start of the second quarter, dropping the pass right into Diggs, who had a step on cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.
Receiver Adam Thielen had six catches for 102 yards on a team-high 12 targets.
“I think you can judge for yourself,” Thielen said when asked how Minnesota’s passing performed in Cousins’ regular-season debut with the team. “I think he proved it and he threw the ball accurately. He got us in the right places and he is a guy that we have a lot of trust with. We know that if we can get open, he’s going to find us, and he’ll put it on target.”
The questions have surrounded Cousins, who takes the reins of a team that fell one game short of the Super Bowl last season. Minnesota wanted stability at quarterback and followed through with the momentous three-year, $84 million contract for Cousins.
Cousins became the fifth different Week 1 starter in coach Mike Zimmer’s five seasons as Vikings head coach.
“I thought he played well,” Zimmer said. “Especially early, he made some great throws. The two touchdown passes were great throws. We had a little lull, offensively, for about three series there. We went three-and-out. We didn’t get much going on there.”
Following the touchdown to Rudolph, Cousins had six straight incompletions. With San Francisco mounting a comeback, Minnesota gained two yards total on three straight series.
Three Latavius Murray runs gave the Vikings a first down on their next possession. Minnesota then faced another third down. Cousins scrambled and dove headfirst, colliding with defenders with his head and that expensive right shoulder in trying for the first down.
“We always talk about sliding and protecting yourself, but in that situation, right there at the chains, I think you’ve got to do something,” Cousins said. “Maybe the right move wasn’t to dive, but maybe try to make him miss, do something, be willing to take a hit because at that point, if you can do something and get the first down, it changes the whole game. We had played too hard to that point to slide early and give up on that. I think you do need to let the situation change your approach and try to go for it.”
How did Zimmer feel about his franchise quarterback sacrificing himself?
“Hey, when the game is on the line, we’re trying to get the first down,” Zimmer said. “Go for it. I’m all in.”
Cousins ended up short, but a hard count on fourth-and-1 drew San Francisco offside and Minnesota took more time off the clock.
Maybe more so than any pinpoint pass or trusting a receiver, the new quarterback might have endeared himself more to his new teammates by giving himself up to make a play.
“You can see it in his attitude on the field, his mentality,” Murray said. “Just the way he carries himself, the way he goes about the game, a play like that, obviously we needed that first down just to hold the clock, and for a quarterback to lower his shoulder and give his body up, that’s motivating. That’s inspiring because I don’t see a lot of quarterbacks doing that.”