EAGAN — In at least three games this season, Kirk Cousins has stepped up to the postgame podium with a familiar refrain.
“It was a tough look with the amount of two-deep they play,” he said after Monday’s game versus Chicago.
“I think when teams play two deep and drop underneath a lot … it makes it difficult to target receivers down the field on some longer passes,” said Cousins after a loss at Baltimore.
“They played a lot of two-deep and clouded Justin,” he said after the offense struggled against Detroit.
Call it Cover 2, ‘shell,’ ‘umbrella,’ whatever you want, it’s been perplexing Cousins and the Vikings offense often enough that it’s officially a trend.
If all it takes to get the Vikings to stop throwing the ball to Justin Jefferson is to retreat into a defensive shell — regardless of personnel — then Minnesota has a problem with its next opponent.
The Rams were first in the league in 2020 using two-high safeties and may show the Vikings plenty of those looks on Sunday. Their secondary is a little more seasoned than the ramshackle Bears, who used mostly backups on Monday yet held Cousins to a career-low 87 passing yards on 24 throws.
“I think that preventing explosives will always be a focus of the defense,” Cousins said. “How do we prevent explosives and make you kind of earn it play by play? That's been a big part of defensive football for a long time.”
So are teams doing it against the Vikings because it’s been proven to stymie Cousins or because it’s just what they do philosophically? Cousins believes it’s the latter.
“It's honestly maybe come down more to the team we're playing,” he said, “because I think the Bears did [two high] at the level they did because of how young their secondary was and the players that were out. It's probably more focused on them. I think the other teams we've played that have done it also probably felt it was a younger secondary. It doesn't ask quite as much of your corners when it comes to covering man to man and that kind of thing.”
The irony is that Cousins needed the coaxing of his head coach to start working the ball downfield instead of settling for checkdowns to C.J. Ham. Now Mike Zimmer is asking him to “dink and dunk” again after the Vikings went 1 of 6 on deep passing attempts versus the Bears.
Unable to get the ball downfield in several games, Cousins has experienced some lows that are lower than usual. In his first three Vikings seasons he only had three games with a passer rating below 70. This season he’s matched that total, including two such performances the last two weeks.
Both Cousins and receiver Adam Thielen were asked about combatting the shell coverage and pointed to the run game as a necessity, but as much as Zimmer might love it as a strategy, running the ball won’t work every down.
Part of the solution may be Klint Kubiak finding the right passing calls to beat two-high looks.
“Obviously you have to be working the right concepts against those coverages to be able to attack it,” Cousins said, “and we have to have a good plan when we see those coverages. Teams will disguise, teams will mix it up just enough so you can't truly rely on it.”
When pressed about what type of concepts might work best, Thielen kept it vague.
“Just finding those zones,” he said. “I think we’ve done that all year because teams have done it quite a bit this year. Just finding some zones and usually when they play that cloud coverage, they’re not blitzing or coming with a ton of pressure, so just letting Kirk find those players, open zones, and giving him time to do that.”