Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins offers insight on his play-action success

Cousins believes success needs a full-team approach and said he likes the view from linebacker level.

EAGAN, Minn. – Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey didn’t travel with the team to Minnesota for joint practices or Saturday’s second preseason game against the Vikings.

In his absence, Ramsey still might have provided one of the most eye-opening observations of the week regarding Minnesota’s new $84 million quarterback, Kirk Cousins.

In an interview with GQ, Ramsey was asked his thoughts on many of the league’s quarterbacks.

“I think he's good,” Ramsey told the publication about Cousins. “I think he's a winner. He's a hell of a competitor.”

The compliments are well and good considering Ramsey is one of the best cornerbacks in the league – though he’s never faced Cousins in a game in his two season – but then Ramsey added an interesting take on the Vikings’ franchise quarterback.

“Coming off the play action, he's the best quarterback in the league. Play action passing, he's a hell of a quarterback,”

Cousins said Thursday that he had heard Ramsey’s comments about the quarterbacks in general, but “didn’t see what he said specifically about me.”

Plenty of reporters did and it led to a revealing press conference with Cousins on Thursday when it comes to why he’s so successful at play action. First, Cousins kind of deferred to the team-approach answer.

“It really goes back to kind of a cliché answer, but it’s the right answer, and that is it takes everybody,” Cousins said. “The game plan has to be good plays. You can run play actions, but if they are bad route concepts, poorly designed protections, you can have a great fake and have all the intentions of making the right throw, but it’s not going to work. If the plays are designed correctly and your protection is loose, guys aren’t holding up, the running back doesn’t have a good mesh then, even as a quarterback, you can do all you want to do, it’s not going to work.

“So, when the line can protect, the concept is good, the running back has a great mesh, receivers can run with speed and create separation, that’s when a play-action offense can really be effective. So, it takes all 11 plus the scheme to really come together and make it work.”

Cousins has succeeded in play action throughout his career. Cousins and the Washington Redskins ranked third in play-action DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) last season according to Football Outsiders.

“I guess it would probably just be that he can make all the throws and then he is a smart enough guy to know where to go with certain coverages in certain situations – when he needs to check the ball down and when he needs to take a shot,” Minnesota receiver Adam Thielen said of Cousins play-action proficiency. “That stuff sometimes goes unseen. But when you’re around him every day, you see it. You see his mindset when we do the situational stuff at the end of practice, you see that stuff really come out.”

The Vikings, according to Football Outsiders, had the highest percentage of play-action plays in the NFL last season and led the league in DVOA. Washington was 20th in the league in percentage of play-action plays.

Cousins went into further detail on Thursday about why a successful play-action offense needs each part of the offense to do its job.

“You want to watch tape of yourself from the camera angle being at linebacker level,” Cousins said. “So, you want to see what it looks like from a linebacker’s point of view, my action, and what does my run game look like from that point of view, and how similar or dissimilar are they? If the right guard on a run play is firing off the ball and then on a play-action pass is setting, I can fake as hard as I want, the linebacker’s going to feel that difference in the O-lineman’s demeanor.

“So, making sure your linemen are firing with low pad level, even if they’re not going down the field to make a block to still give that illusion initially really helps. Then you’ve got to have a good mesh with the running back. Although he’s looking in protection and has to have his eyes on the pass game, to be able to really sell that mesh like he’s trying to run the football makes a big difference. Then you obviously want to show the ball, snap that ball back and then get your eyes up.”

With speedy, precise receivers in Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Cousins has the outside piece to the puzzle.

Teams will also have to respect Vikings running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Even with Cook limited to four games last season, Minnesota was second in the league in rushing attempts last season.

There’s also the Cousins’ piece.

“He can spin it,” Diggs said. “He can throw the deep ball really, really well. I like to run.”

Ramsey isn’t in Minnesota because of a team-imposed suspension but like Diggs and Thielen, Cousins wished the All-Pro cornerback was a part of the practices. Going against Jacksonville’s defense – which was second to the Vikings in fewest yards and points allowed last season – is a strong test for Cousins and the offense.

“We found yesterday there’s probably a greater number of checkdowns, of settling for a completion as opposed to getting a home run because of the nature of their defense,” Cousins said. “think all of that is important. Even making certain checks in the run game based on their fronts and understanding this is a different look than our defense would give us. So, some of the runs that were really good for us against our defense aren’t as good against their defense. Learning all that, it’s a great reminder of why practice is so important every week during the season, because each defense has those nuances that if you’re not on top of it, it will make for a long day on Sundays.”