Kirk Cousins silenced the critics and delivered a signature playoff win in New Orleans. What did we learn about the Vikings during a 26-20 overtime victory? Daniel House recaps Cousins' game-winning drive.by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
When the Vikings’ front office signed quarterback Kirk Cousins on March 15, 2018, they had one goal in mind. Cousins was viewed as the missing piece of a team filled with top-tier talent. For Vikings fans, one thing has been absent since No. 8 arrived — a clutch performance on the biggest stage. After signing with Minnesota, critics have constantly judged Cousins for his performance in high-leverage situations.
With the entire world watching, Cousins took the stage and made a big statement during Sunday's Wild Card playoff win in New Orleans.
Energy surged through Mercedes-Benz Superdome as Minnesota's quarterback surveyed the defense. On first-and-10 from New Orleans' 45-yard-line, Cousins used play-action and launched a deep pass to Adam Thielen. Cousins' throw spun through the air and Thielen beautifully tracked the pass. The 43-yard reception from Cousins to Thielen was the catalyst of a thrilling 26-20 overtime victory.
Two plays later, Cousins saw Cover-0 pressure on third-and-goal. He quickly released the ball and perfectly placed a touch fade to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the end zone. Rudolph reached over the top of cornerback P.J. Williams to secure a game-winning 4-yard touchdown. The Vikings won their first road playoff game since 2005 and will travel to San Francisco for an NFC Divisional playoff game next Saturday. Entering Sunday's game, Minnesota was more than a touchdown underdog, but played a complete football game in all three phases.
Cousins finished 19-for-31 with 242 yards and a touchdown. He had three key throws during the Vikings’ game-winning drive, including a 10-yard quick slant to Stefon Diggs on third-and-1. A couple plays later, the Saints sent pressure and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski perfectly timed a running play. Dalvin Cook burst free for 11 yards and set the stage for Cousins’ deep shot to Thielen.
After missing two games with a shoulder injury, Cook was sensational during Sunday’s game. He broke tackles and found creases in the zone-blocking scheme. Cook had 28 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns. Late in the first half, he also slipped into the flat and gained 19 yards off a swing pass. Center Garrett Bradbury sparked the big play by using his athleticism to get out in front of Cook. The entire offensive line was thriving on the move and beautifully executed the scheme. Right tackle Brian O’Neill also had a key edge block to spark a 22-yard run by Cook. All day, Minnesota’s offensive line kept the pocket clean and got into the second level to open rushing lanes.
A brilliant defensive scheme
Head coach Mike Zimmer and his defensive staff deserve credit for the game plan they deployed. On film, New Orleans’ offensive line struggled with interior pressure, so Zimmer tweaked alignments up front. He occasionally moved defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen into the interior. This pass rushing package was an x-factor and caused Saints quarterback Drew Brees to release the ball early. After wide receiver Adam Thielen fumbled on the Vikings’ opening drive, Griffen sacked Brees on third down and held New Orleans to a field goal. Griffen and Hunter were dominant and caused disruptions the entire day. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo also had several pressures on a rotational basis.
Saints tackle Ryan Ramczyk had not allowed a single sack all year, but surrendered two against Hunter. The Vikings led 20-17 with 4:18 remaining and New Orleans reached Minnesota's 20-yard-line. Hunter used an inside pass rushing move and stripped Brees. Defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes recovered and ended the Saints’ drive.
The Vikings' pass rush stepped up in big moments, which prevented Brees from moving in the pocket. Brees finished the afternoon 26-for-33 with 208 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
Minnesota’s defense also clamped down against the run and limited running back Alvin Kamara’s success. Kamara had just seven carries for 21 yards, including a short rushing touchdown. The Vikings got interior penetration and the second-level maintained gap discipline. When New Orleans tried jet motion action to Kamara, linebacker Eric Kendricks read the play and slowed him in the backfield.
In the secondary, the Vikings were very short-handed. Cornerback Mike Hughes (neck) was placed on injured reserve this week. Starting nickel cornerback Mackensie Alexander also missed Sunday’s game with a knee injury. Zimmer and his staff decided to use safety Andrew Sendejo at nickel cornerback. He had never played the position before, but executed in a playoff game. Sendejo held his own and had a notable pass breakup over the middle. There were several instances where the Saints tried to create a mismatch for wide receiver Michael Thomas. When this happened, Thomas was held in check. New Orleans’ top wide receiver had just seven catches for 70 yards.
The Vikings’ defense allowed only two explosive passing plays the entire day. Versatile skill player Taysom Hill tossed a 50-yard pass to wide receiver Deonte Thomas, who beat cornerback Xavier Rhodes over the top. In the second half, New Orleans motioned Hill out-wide and he wheeled down the sideline. Minnesota incorrectly passed off a coverage, which created a free release. Brees found Hill for a 20-yard touchdown that pulled the Saints within three points with 10:31 remaining.
Other than those two moments, the Vikings’ secondary limited explosive plays. Right before halftime, safety Anthony Harris grabbed his seventh interception of the season. He perfectly camped under Brees’ deep throw and made the play. Following the takeaway, Minnesota went on a 7-play, 45-yard scoring drive to grab a 13-10 halftime lead. Harris’ interception was a defining moment in the Vikings’ huge playoff victory.