Kirk Cousins, Redskins can pull off upset against Vikings, but it won't be easy
Fresh off an upset in Seattle, the Redskins will host the Vikings in another tough matchup
The Washington Redskins shouldn't be alive. They should be finished already after an unfair fight against the Seahawks. But somehow, they're alive -- only just barely -- and breathing. We thought they were sunk, but they're floating on and on.
On Sunday, the Redskins went to Seattle down nearly an entire offensive line and managed to return home with a come-from-behind 17-14 win, which means they're not out of the playoff picture just yet at 4-4. Did the Redskins get lucky? Absolutely, considering Seahawks kicker Blair Walsh missed three field goals. But Washington also deserves credit for the win.
Unfortunately, it won't get much easier. That's because on Sunday, the Redskins will host the 6-2 Vikings, who are coming off their bye week with a four-game winning streak. Just like the Seahawks, the Vikings' defense will also present problems for the shorthanded Redskins.
Don't count out the Redskins, though. As the win over the Seahawks demonstrated, they're capable of pulling off the upset.
What's the problem?
Due to injuries, the Redskins have been forced to trot out a makeshift offensive line to protect Kirk Cousins. I'll let the Redskins' team website explain the extent of the damage:
First, both Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams (knee) and third-year starting right tackle Morgan Moses (ankles) battled injuries before center Spencer Long (knees) and guards Brandon Scherff (MCL sprain) and Shawn Lauvao (stinger) showed up on the injury report in recent weeks.
Swing tackle Ty Nsekhe also has been sidelined since Week 3 with a core muscle injury that required surgery.
During the Redskins' Week 9 victory over the Seahawks, Williams, Long, Scherff, Lauvao and Nsekhe all weren't healthy enough to play. With the bevy of injuries, the Redskins had T.J. Clemmings, Arie Kouandjio, Chase Roullier and Tyler Catalina as starters alongside Moses.
That's a problem. And it's not clear how many of their starters will return in time for Sunday's game. With that being, as The Washington Post's Liz Clarke reported on Wednesday, Lauvao, Long, and Scherff all returned to practice. So, there's hope. And you know what Jyn Erso says about hope.
Their offensive line problems will be exacerbated by the matchup, because they're going up against one of the best defenses in football. The Vikings are allowing the fourth-fewest yards per game (282.1) and the third-fewest points per game (16.9). They've managed to do that despite generating only 10 turnovers. By DVOA, the Vikings' defense is ranked ninth.
They're strong across the board, but especially so on the defensive front. Only seven teams have racked up more sacks. Defensive end Everson Griffen is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He has notched 10 sacks and he's done so consistently, picking up at least one sack in every game of the season.
On the back end, Cousins will have to be wary of cornerback Xavier Rhodes. A year ago, Rhodes led all cornerbacks with a 47.0 passer rating in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. It wasn't a fluke performance. This year, he's ranked eighth with a 59.2 passer rating in coverage. And then there's safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr, and so on. You get the point. The Vikings' defense is stacked and they've carried the Vikings straight to the top of the NFC North.
And they're going to give the Redskins a ton of problems -- even if the Redskins were completely healthy.
How did they beat the Seahawks?
But the Redskins did just beat the Seahawks in Seattle. So, they're not incapable of surviving against a good defense.
Against the Seahawks, the Redskins relied on their stellar defense, which came up with timely stops. In the first half, they held the Seahawks to field goals and the Seahawks missed all three of their attempts. I'm not going to pretend like the Vikings had anything to do with those missed kicks -- it had everything to do with Blair Walsh being Blair Walsh -- but give them credit for keeping the Seahawks out of the end zone.
Speaking of timely, the Redskins also picked off Russell Wilson twice and then made the defensive play of the game in the final seconds, preventing Walsh from getting a chance to redeem himself.
But the Redskins offense wasn't great. In a low-scoring game, it handed the Seahawks two points with a safety. The Redskins averaged 4.1 yards per play. They went 4 of 13 on third down. Cousins played fine, but not great, going 21 of 31 for 247 yards, no touchdowns, no picks, and a 91.7 passer rating. He lost one fumble.
He got lucky at times. Like insanely lucky:
The offensive line allowed six sacks. The running game averaged 2.2 yards per carry. By now, you should probably be wondering how the Redskins managed to win this game. They won because of their defense (as previously mentioned) and the offense's ability to make a few big-time plays in crucial situations.
Let's start with the Redskins' first scoring series (they only had three), which ended with 1-yard touchdown run via Rob Kelley. Facing an early third-and-4, Cousins kept the series alive with a dart to a well-covered Vernon Davis. Note the ball placement, because for all of the credit Cousins always gets for his high completion percentage, he rarely puts the ball in a perfect place like this. But this was the only place Cousins could've put the ball so that Davis had a shot to come down with it:
It wouldn't be Cousins' only first-down completion to Davis. Two plays later, the duo did it again, connecting for a 23-yard gain. This time, don't credit Cousins. Credit the play-calling, because the play-action completely fooled Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor, who bit on the play-fake, panicked because he thought he might get burned deep by Davis, and got left behind as Davis crossed the field instead of staying vertical.
Cousins later hit Josh Doctson on a simple out-route for 10 yards, Davis again on a slant for 11 yards, and Terrelle Pryor on a 5-yard curl in the middle of the field -- all simple, yet effective throws. After a run and a clear pass interference penalty in the end zone, the Redskins scored their first points of the game.
Now, let's fast-forward to the third quarter and the Redskins' field-goal drive. Only one play was noteworthy, but it was noteworthy because it involved an incredible throw in the face of intense pressure. Look at this Cousins bullet, which he releases just as he takes an illegal head shot, which only happened because his center got beat at the onset of the snap:
It's even better from this angle, which shows just how much anticipation Cousins needed to have on the throw:
Finally, let's go to the Redskins' final offensive series. Trailing by four with 1:34 remaining, they needed a touchdown. They got it in 35 seconds, needing just four plays to go 70 yards. And Cousins made two big-time throws.
The first -- a 31 yarder to Brian Quick -- was thrown off his back foot and, again, in the face of quick pressure up the middle.
Is it reasonable to say that Cousins' weighted throw wouldn't have worked if Earl Thomas had been healthy enough to play in that game? Yes. But it's also reasonable to say that Cousins wouldn't have been forced to throw that pass off his back foot as he got clobbered if his starting offensive line had been healthy enough to play. It all evens out.
On the next play, Cousins sank the Seahawks with a 38-yard downfield strike to Doctson, who made the catch of his young career and slid down to the 1-yard line, setting up Kelley's game-winning plunge.
Again, Cousins wasn't at his best on Sunday, in part because his supporting cast was seriously lacking in talent. But he made big-time throws in situations that demanded clutch plays. As PFF wrote:
Cousins numbers weren't overly impressive, completing 21-of-31 passes for 247 yards but it was the high accuracy under pressure that was as he completed 7-of-9 for 100 yards in those instances. Due to the high pressure throughout the game, Cousins often had to get rid of the ball quickly and 18 of his 31 passes traveled under 10 yards. He was 2-of-5 on deep passes with the two completions the most important ones, coming on the final drive of the game.
That's why the Redskins won -- besides their defense and the curse of Blair Walsh, of course.
How can they beat the Vikings next?
For one, they'll need another staunch defensive effort. To this point, the Vikings haven't been bad on offense, but they haven't been great. They're scoring 22.4 points per game and are ranked 11th in offensive DVOA. But I can't help but shake the feeling that they're going to implode on Sunday, mainly because their quarterback is still Case Keenum.
Keenum, who's only playing because of Sam Bradford's knee issues and because Teddy Bridgewater isn't ready yet to start, has completed 63.9 percent of his passes, averaged 6.9 yards per pass, thrown seven touchdowns and three picks, and posted an 88.8 passer rating. So, he's actually playing better than he ever has throughout his career. At some point, though, he's going to revert back to his normal self, because he's still Case Keenum.
It might be this Sunday. Josh Norman is back, after all. And the Redskins defense is sneaking under the radar. They're solid, ranking 12th in DVOA. They'll need to pitch another strong game for the Redskins to have a shot, because the offense is going to be in for another tough game.
But there are some areas the Redskins can attack, specifically Trae Waynes. The Vikings' 25-year-old CB2 is remarkably inconsistent. He's notched five picks since the beginning of last year, but he's also prone to horrific outings. Take a look at his weekly grading chart, via PFF:
So it's not like Waynes is bad. He just sometimes experiences awful outings -- at least more often than Rhodes does. The Redskins should test him like they tested Seahawks CB2 Shaquill Griffin, who allowed three catches on three targets for 71 yards, per PFF.
The Redskins also need to capitalize on the rare chances they have to attack the blitz. According to PFF, the Vikings blitz on only 23.2 percent of their snaps. League average is 29.7 percent. Cousins has been stellar against the blitz, posting a 120.9 passer rating. So when the Vikings do blitz, the Redskins will be well-equipped to deal with it.
Overall, the Redskins need to follow the same formula as they did against the Seahawks. Win the turnover battle. Make big throws in big moments. And let the defense keep them in the game. It might not be a sustainable way to win in the long run, but it can work in the short-term. It needs to work if the Redskins are going to keep floating on.
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