Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
16 Apr 2012
by Matt Waldman
The blond locks and winning smile, the aw-shucks, glad-to-be-here attitude, and the heart to stand tall and tough under pressure. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins is the Mr. Congeniality of the 2012 NFL Draft. According to what I have read, Cousins’ game is built on intangibles. He’s smart. He’s a leader. He’s a winner.
From the waist up, he’s everything an NFL owner and general manager want from a quarterback. Ladies love him, men want to be him, and big businesses want him to give speeches. Marketing directors for NFL teams are praying each night before they go to sleep that a player with Cousins’ looks and media savvy will come to their town, play well, and create a decade-long waiting list for season tickets.
The problem with the love-fest for Cousins is that none of that talent above the waist matters unless he develops the foundation of good quarterbacking from the waist down. The Michigan State quarterback has a quick release, experience operating a pro-style offense, and the aggressive mindset to make throws into tight windows. Despite that, he’ll never win a title greater than Mr. Congeniality in the beauty pageant that is the NFL if he doesn’t address his footwork. In fact, he’ll never develop into even a reliable NFL starter without focusing on his game from the waist down.
An arm talent like Jay Cutler can make power throws with a high level of difficulty without good footwork, but a player like Cousins needs torque from his hips to generate good velocity. The main thing he needs to do is step into his release more consistently. Although Cousins told the media before his senior year that he worked on stepping into throws, there was no evidence that his offseason work translated to the playing field.
This is a bad sign, because as polished as Cousins’ image is, it’s not a leap to assume that he either worked on the wrong things or he didn’t work hard enough. His subpar footwork plagued him all year and will hold him back if he doesn’t address it early in his NFL career. Cousins’ 2011 performance against Notre Dame does a good job of illustrating the Michigan State quarterback’s problem, but it was just as noticeable in other contests I saw versus Iowa and Georgia.
Michigan State’s opening play is a first-and-10 play-action pass with 10:41 in the first quarter that results in an interception. The play didn’t count because the cornerback in pass coverage was called for defensive holding, negating the turnover. Even if the cornerback doesn’t commit the penalty on the wide receiver, Cousins is still likely to make an errant throw. This makes the play worth examination.
The Spartans run the play from a 12 personnel, 1×1 set versus the Irish’s 4-3 defense.
Cousins has a fairly reliable tell that the outside receivers have man coverage, because the strong safety and free safety are aligned inside both the strong side linebacker and defensive end.
The play begins with Cousins executing a play fake to the running back. While Cousin makes several thorough play fakes in this contest, his first is not one of them -– he needs to become more consistent in this part of his game. The ball action is brief and there’s more of a two-handed jab of the ball outward. It recoils as fast as Cousins extends it.
Notice how Cousins is already bringing the ball back to his body before the runner has even reached a point where he'd realistically take an exchange (green circle). This may have left the second and third level of the defense with a pause (yellow circles), but it hasn't sold them on the run. None of them are moving forward.
As Cousins stares down the middle of the field, it’s evident that the free safety doesn’t bite on the fake and is now dropping into his zone. At the same time, the defensive tackle is beginning a monster bull rush up the middle.
Pressure up the middle is a difficult obstacle for a quarterback to avoid while still keeping his eyes down field. It also forces a quarterback to make off-balance throws that lead to inaccurate passes. Good NFL starters have to be adept at handling this kind of rush.
Over two seconds have elapsed since the snap and Cousins is a statue in the pocket. The defensive tackle is just two yards away, with his outside shoulder coming free to the quarterback. Cousins can’t see his back side protection, but he should have a feel for where it’s supposed to be and make one of two decisions: climb the pocket to his left, or break the pocket to his right to either throw or run.
It's now time to step up or turn tail, but Cousin's feet are frozen in place. The yellow circle is the area of the pocket where Cousins should have sensed that he could slide to.
In less than a second, Cousins is within a yard of the defensive tackle steamrolling towards him at the Michigan State 12. There’s still room to slide to his left, but Cousins opts to stand tall and attempt a power throw. However, without the ability to turn his hips and generate torque, Cousins’ decision is ill-advised.
The photo above illustrates that Cousins will have no room to step into a throw on this attempt, and the pass is thrown off his back foot. Just a half-beat earlier, he had time to slide to his left, but he currently lacks the pocket awareness to execute this maneuver. The rhythm of more refined footwork will make a difference in these situations if he works at it.
Cousins demonstrates a fast release, making the delivery of the ball just before the tackle hits and wraps his waist, but no one will ever mistake Cousins' velocity on a throw off his back foot with the power of a Cutler or Matthew Stafford.
You don't see it now, but Cousins is targeting his receiver on a post pattern. The fact that Cousins rushes his throw on a pattern that's going to break at least 25 yards down field is a bad decision. The greater the distance of a throw, the more important it is for the quarterback to exhibit good timing. As the camera pans to the receiver breaking open, the ball is clearly shy of the target.
The camera doesn’t show the cornerback briefly holding the receiver during the initial release. However, the knowledge of this infraction actually makes Cousins’ execution of the throw even worse than it appears. Without the holding penalty, the receiver would have been another 2-3 steps downfield, and the ramifications of Cousins’ underthrown pass would have been far more severe.
Based on the receiver's location as he breaks on the post, the ball would need to be placed another 7-10 yards down field for the receiver to make the catch in stride -- and that accounts for the cornerback's holding infraction during the receiver’s initial release. As you can see, the receiver is at the 45 and the sinking pass arrives at the 42 as the safety makes the shoe-top interception.
Cousins’ decision to throw the ball is a poor one because he attempted an all-arm release on a route where he needs to use his legs and hips to drive the ball. Without the benefit of good mechanics, Cousins lacks the elite arm talent to make the play. There’s a line between aggressiveness and recklessness. On this opening play of the series, Cousins obliterated that line.
This phrase has become a buzzword for Blaine Gabbert’s problems. The rookie’s behavior was an extreme example of reacting poorly to pressure in the pocket, because in his case the mere idea of pressure incited bad mechanical reactions with his release and yielded poor results. I often cite Matt Ryan as player with a less severe case of pressure sensitivity. However, most players with an internal clock experience these moments to some degree. Cousins does as well in this contest.
After an offensive holding penalty, Michigan State comes to the line on a second-and-17 with 4:49 left in the game. The alignment is an 11-personnel, 2×1 shotgun set.
Notre Dame's weak side corner (bottom) plays tight to receiver B.J. Cunningham, which (likely) indicates man coverage with possible safety help on deeper routes. This is a good opportunity for a sideline comeback.
Cousins begins his drop looking to the strong side, where his twin receivers and tight end release from the line of scrimmage.
A benefit to Cousins beginning his progression to the right side is that it holds the free safety closer to the middle of the field. If the quarterback decides to throw to the weak side, it will likely be a one-on-one situation.
When Cousins turns to the weak side of the field, he senses pressure up the middle from both defensive tackles. Cousins’ response is to take a step backwards. Now, he’s flat-footed with two options: throw the comeback, or check down to the running back crossing short over the middle.
This play is less than a half-second from ending badly for Cousins if he doesn't make a quick decision. Based on the direction that his feet take, Mr. Congeniality has no business throwing a 17-yard comeback. Throwing the ball to the sideline will require another high-velocity pass, but Cousins doesn’t demonstrate the footwork to execute that kind of throw –- even with a clean pocket in front of him.
One might scoff and say that it’s easy to second-guess how much room Cousins has to make a play. However, every quarterback should have a feel for how fast a pocket collapses and how much room he needs to make certain throws. Cousins also needs to be acutely aware that he can’t successfully drive the ball 17 yards downfield without stepping through his release.
In Michigan State’s bowl game versus Georgia, Cousins threw three interceptions. If not for drops by the defense, he would have thrown three more. At least two of these bad plays were attributable to Cousins lacking awareness of his physical limitations. On this play versus the Fighting Irish, Cousins exacerbates the issue he has with his lack of good footwork when, instead of stepping forward and into his release, he hops a step backwards as he begins the process of delivering the ball.
Although the photo appears as if he stepped into the pass, he actually did the opposite, and the lack of zip on the ball becomes evident as it travels down field. As a quick side note, Jon Gruden was doing color commentary for the Georgia game, when he saw a similar play where Cousins used his front foot to step to the side, rather than forward, as he delivered the ball on a pass play. The Michigan State quarterback threw the ball into coverage and the pass lacked the zip to split the defense. Georgia nearly made the interception. Gruden, who lacked the benefit of watching multiple replays during live action, remarked that Cousins "threw it awkwardly off his back foot." Even when Cousins isn’t throwing the ball off his back foot, his throws often appear that way.
Returning to this play, the quarterback takes an incredulous hop backwards, so much of his weight is still on his back foot as he begins this release. There is no way he can get good torque with his hips and his throw lacks the velocity to prevent the safety from jumping the route.
The safety actually breaks on the route before Cousins’ throw, which further underscores why it was so important that he had to drive this ball. On a conceptual level, I think the decision to throw to the sideline was a poor one in the first place. A second-and-17 dumpoff to the running back could have earned 7-10 yards and placed the offensive in a more manageable third-and-10 or third-and-7. Regardless of the wisdom of Cousins’ decision, if he’s going to try to beat the safety to a point on the field, he'd better put some mustard on the ball. Hopping backwards to deliver a flat-footed pass that inhibits hip torque isn’t going to get the job done.
One of the common factors with both the plays above and the one I’m about to examine is that Cousins waits too long to deliver the football and then tries to rush his delivery process with poor results. Although I have seen him climb the pocket in several games, he almost always appears stiff doing so. He’s not comfortable working the pocket from side-to-side or stepping into pressure –- his footwork appears clumsy in comparison to the top prospects in this class. He moves in the pocket with the awkwardness of a teenager who has never danced before.
Another good example of this problem is a second-and-8 pass from the Notre Dame 18 with 1:11 left in the game. Michigan State comes to the line in a 1×2-receiver, 11-personnel shotgun set.
Cousins' dancing partner on this play is the strong side defensive end, but the Michigan State quarterback is not moving well. He'll need to get the steps down if he doesn’t want to get sacked.
At the snap, the defensive end reaches the edge unblocked, and with the running back waiting ahead to engage, the end has a complete mismatch in his favor.
A quarterback with good pocket presence sees this potential issue right now, and is thinking about how to avoid the pressure. Cousins lacks this skill, and a few steps later, the defensive end is outside the running back, who failed in his attempt to cut block the edge rusher. Within the defensive end’s next two steps, Cousins needs to have an evasive maneuver ready.
The defensive end is now a step beyond the running back and this is Cousins’ last chance to evade the edge rusher. He lacks the angle to climb the pocket, but he could spin to the inside and roll to the right flat –- this is his best option. His receivers can flood the zone and work open, or he can throw the ball away or stop the clock by running out of bounds.
Cousins has two escape routes available to him, including taking a step outside the hash and throwing the ball away without a penalty. However, he lacks the pocket presence to make even that decision.
Cousins decides to wait for his receiver to break and attempts to deliver the ball flat-footed while getting creamed by the defensive end.
Yet again, Cousins doesn't step into a throw. In fact, his body is actually leaning away from his front leg. With this throwing stance, there's virtually no chance Cousins gets the velocity he needs to complete this pass. There's only one Robert Griffin III in this draft, and he’s nowhere near South Bend on this day.
As I mentioned earlier, there are other techniques to maneuver the pocket that Cousins should have considered, but didn’t. He could have reduced the shoulder and climbed the ladder. He could have attempted to spin away from pressure. He simply could have thrown the ball away.
Instead, Cousins stands tall and tries to deliver the ball while getting hit. The contact alters the throw to the inside, where it travels a path too far for the receiver to make a play, and nearly gets picked off by a safety coming from the inside. Once again, there is nothing smart about this play.
The fact that Cousins will stand tall to make the tough throw is a positive. However when he faces pressure, he often has difficulty knowing when to step into a throw and when to retreat. He lacks a refined feel for the pass rush and his footwork, his accuracy, and his velocity suffer. If he doesn’t address these issues he’ll soon be called a "former quarterback."
20 comments, Last at 20 Apr 2012, 7:44pm by Noah Arkadia