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EAGAN — One of the things about studying sports statistics is that they exist in a world where the subject being studied also knows what the results are saying. So imagine being told that you blink 30 times per minute. You’d probably start thinking about blinking and end up at 50 times in the next few minutes.

Here’s how this applies to the Minnesota Vikings: Last year’s numbers showed clearly that Kirk Cousins took too many sacks. Studies have indicated that the quarterback has more control over sack rate than the offensive line. If you want proof, go look at Dan Marino’s sack numbers and prepare to have your mind blown. But Cousins was aware of both of those things. He stated that sacks are a QB stat and acknowledged this week that his sack rate was too high in 2020.

"I think we took 39 [last year],” Cousins said. “I didn’t love to see that next to [my] name. So you want to be better at that year in and year out if you can. So it’s something we’ve tried to improve on.”

And improve he has. Vastly. Cousins has only been sacked 18 times with four games remaining and the Vikings have the second lowest sack rate in the NFL, only behind Tom Brady’s Buccaneers.

At 3.9% of drop backs, Cousins presently has the lowest sack rate of his career and the Vikings have only lost 128 yards due to sacks. From 2018-2020, only five quarterbacks lost more yardage due to sacks than Cousins and two of them (Russell Willson, DeShaun Watson) were known as running QBs.

The natural inclination here might be to point toward the offensive line. The Vikings did make quite the philosophical shift at the guard position, putting two former tackles in those spots with hopes of handling powerful interior rushers.

On the surface, PFF’s data suggests that it isn’t better O-line play that’s behind the decreased sack rate. The Vikings rank 28th in PFF pass blocking grade, which is up one spot from last year.

Looking closer at the individual grades gives us a little insight. Rookie Christian Darrisaw, for example, has a higher pass blocking efficiency rate than he does PFF grade, likely because he’s found ways to recover with his size/strength/athleticism after mistakes that get graded negatively. Oli Udoh has only given up one sack but he leads the NFL with 15 penalties.

The way PFF grades linemen could be a factor here, too. If a lineman has a lot of smaller losses in pass protection, the numbers will look the same as if they have catastrophic losses. In 2020, there were a lot of memorable catastrophic losses. Cousins has the lowest rate of pressures that end up as sacks in the NFL, which might suggest he’s getting just enough time to get the ball out rather than being taken down instantly

“I think he’s getting ball out when he sees pressures,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.

Here’s where the part about the test subject knowing the numbers really shows up: Last year Cousins had the highest rate of causing his own pressures (per PFF) of his career. This year, it’s not only the best of his career, it’s No. 1 in the NFL.

sack percentage

 As you can see, he was consistently mid-pack in inviting pressure throughout his career before 2020, in which he did so much more often.

“He’s able to change protection at the line of scrimmage,” Zimmer said. “So I think all those things have been a big factor. But it’s not just one thing. He’s been really, really good with knowing where his hot [routes] are going to be based on the route concept and things like that as well.”

Cousins credited the game plan with providing help in the form of available quick options if he’s rushed or extra players staying in to block.

“I think it starts with Klint and the coaches having a plan that is aware of a pass rush,” Cousins said. “Certainly our offensive line and our fullbacks and our tailbacks and our tight ends have to do a great job in protection and in chipping and slowing the rush down, and then as a quarterback you’ve got to get through your reads. You’ve got to find a place to ditch the football if need be.”

Ditching the football more often would have been a reasonable explanation earlier in the year. By Week 10, Cousins had the second lowest average depth of target in the NFL. Shorter passes equate to the ball getting out quicker and quarterbacks taking fewer sacks, generally speaking. But in Weeks 11-14, Cousins’ average depth of target is the second highest in the NFL at 10.0 and he’s still only been sacked six times, the sixth fewest.

Also despite the deeper throws, Cousins has the fifth quickest snap-to-release time since Week 11. Overall this year, he’s also fifth, which is unusual compared to his career numbers. Last year he ranked 15th and he was 21st in 2019.

One thing that is impacting those numbers is the use of bubble screens. On throws behind the line of scrimmage, Cousins is releasing his passes in just 1.8 seconds. That’s the quickest by far (likely because of fewer slow-developing screens to RBs) than the last few seasons. His snap-to-release on throws downfield has been consistent, as has his passes between 0-10 yards. So he isn’t throwing it faster than in previous years on longer developing routes.

The Vikings have reduced their play-action percentage from 2020. He was sacked 12 times on play-actions last year and just six times this season. That also hints at scheme. Part of the reduced sack rate could be simply that the coaching staff wanted to improve it. When Cousins is coached to play a certain way, he usually does.

Now the final part of this: How much difference has it made?

The Vikings rank sixth in passing Expected Points Added, which has also been boosted by throwing so few interceptions. That’s the highest mark in the Zimmer era. Last year they ranked 10th. In terms of net yards per pass attempt, however, the Vikings were seventh in 2020 and currently sit in seventh.

So it hasn’t completely transformed the passing game. Where it might make a difference is down the stretch. Getting Darrisaw back in the lineup will bump Udoh to the bench. If the Vikings reduce the penalties that have essentially hurt them as much as sacks would have and Cousins continues to get passes out of his hands at a rate that reflects Tom Brady, we could see a noticeable different.

The last four games are not without challenges though. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks returns for the Bears this week. Green Bay will have its pass rushers back and Aaron Donald comes to town.

“It’s something we’ve tried to improve on and I think we have, but with four games to go there’s still a lot of football left,” Cousins said. 

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