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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Doug Farrar

Anatomy of a Play: Kirk Cousins’ game-ending fourth-down throw wasn’t his fault

You want your quarterback to come up big in the biggest possible moments. Kirk Cousins hasn’t done that to a degree that would satisfy his detractors throughout his NFL career, so when he threw a three-yard pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson on fourth-and-8 with 1:51 left in the game, and the Minnesota Vikings down, 31-24, those detractors had even more fuel than they had before. To those anti-Cousins stans, this was yet another example of Cousins writing checks he couldn’t cash.

Well, there was more to it than that, as the dots show.

As was the case through most of the game, Giants world-wrecking defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence had a bead on Cousins, and Minnesota’s offensive line couldn’t deal with that particular smoke. It didn’t help that Hockenson’s route was the only one that wasn’t long-developing. Which might work if your quarterback has a pocket. In this case, Cousins didn’t for long. In fact, it wasn’t just Lawrence who was getting to Cousins here.

Now, if you look at the overhead view, right tackle Oli Udoh had defensive tackle Leonard Williams blocked well on the stunt with Williams and Kayvon Thibodeaux. Perhaps Cousins should have rolled to his right and tried to hit Jefferson despite the double coverage. Nobody would have blamed him for trying.

“The intent as a playcaller is you’re not going to call a primary concept where somebody is short of the sticks to gain, especially on fourth down,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said after the fact. “If it’s 3rd down and you can catch, convert and make it a fourth-and-2 or 3, that’s okay. But yeah, looking back on it, I maybe could have just been a little bit more, hey, this is kind of where you want the ball to go. But I want Kirk to be able to play. I want him to be free out there to make good decisions. He did all night long. Moved our team. Stood in there, getting the ball out of his hand in rhythm. It just so happens that that down — we just didn’t get enough on the play regardless.

“In the end I look at as it’s as much on me in that play call, even though we had eligibles with a chance down the field. Maybe. There’s always a play that could be better for your guys out there, and that one will stick with me.”

But again, unless Cousins moved out of the pocket, those “eligibles” had routes that were too long in developing for the situation at hand. Receivers Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn ran a deep switch release on the backside, and Justin Jefferson had a deep corner route through the numbers. If Cousins had rolled right and thrown to Jefferson, he would have had to deal with his best receiver being bracketed, and the Giants had sticky man coverage on Thielen and Osborn.

“Yeah, just a shell read there,” Cousins said. “Saw single high, tried to work Justin, didn’t feel good about putting it up to Justin, and when I went to progress [through his reads], I just felt like I was about to get sacked and I felt like I’ve got to put the ball in play. I can’t go down with a sack, so I thought I’d kick it out to T.J. I had thrown short of the sticks on a few occasions in the game and even going back a few weeks and just felt like throwing it short of the sticks isn’t the end of the world. It’s just obviously tight coverage, so didn’t have the chance to pull away. But I just felt like I was going to go down and take a sack if I didn’t put it out.”

Hockenson pointed out that there were options to his route that he wasn’t able to exploit, as safety Xavier McKinney made the tackle.

“It’s just a choice route, you know I think there’s angle on the front side. I just wish I could’ve broken the tackle and been able to run that. It’s a tough one, it’s a tough look to accept who’s down, and it’s a tough read so I just kind of broke it out but I just wasn’t able to break [McKinney’s] tackle.”

And while that play will stick with the Vikings through a long offseason, McKinney was already looking ahead to Big Blue’s divisional-round game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“It was special, but I know we have another game to go,” McKinney said of his tackle. “I can’t be too high on it, but I made the play, and we got off the field and won the game. That was the play to win it.”

It was, but what it wasn’t was Kirk Cousins’ fault. There are times where you just have to top your hat to a better-prepared opponent.

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