by Scott Kacsmar
Thursday Night Football finished a strong September with a heavyweight bout between the Vikings and Rams in Los Angeles. The game looked amazing on paper a week ago, but after Minnesota's historic bruising by Buffalo on Sunday, the strange Everson Griffen situation, and some injuries to key players, we weren't sure what to expect on a short week.
Fortunately, the shootout was on immediately with five straight scoring drives to begin the game. By the end of the night, Jared Goff turned in a career-best performance after completing 26-of-33 passes for 465 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the 38-31 win. Goff had the most pass attempts (33) ever in a game with a perfect passer rating, surpassing the time Ken O'Brien did it in 1986 with 32 passes. The 2018 Rams became the eighth team since 1940 to score at least 33 points in each of the first four games of a season. That puts them in some pretty exclusive company with the likes of the 1991 Redskins, 2007 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos.
Despite the offensive brilliance from Sean McVay's team, the Vikings were 52 yards (and an extra point) away from going to overtime. How worried should Minnesota fans be at 1-2-1 with a trip to Philadelphia coming up next? In a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters, we'll look at some points of interest from the latest 2018 shootout.
The Offensive Onslaught Continues
These two offenses are more talented than most, but this was a strong offensive effort to begin Week 4 in a high-scoring season. The over in total points is only 25-23-1 this year, but the lines are often high. These teams almost hit the over (49) at halftime when the Rams led 28-20.
Los Angeles was historically explosive in this game. The Rams became only the second offense since the 1970 merger to average better than 10 yards per play on at least 50 plays. They had 55 plays for 556 yards (10.1 yards per play). That hasn't been done since Joe Namath's Jets averaged 10.6 yards per play in a monumental shootout with Johnny Unitas and the Colts in 1972.
The Rams were so good at big plays that they piled up 556 yards and 38 points despite going 1-of-6 on third down. This is only the third time since 1991 where an offense had over 500 yards without having multiple third-down conversions, according to Pro Football Reference. In the second and third quarters, Goff had his six biggest completions (70, 56, 47, 36, 31, and 27 yards). There's no need for third down when chunks are coming like that.
On a night with plenty of great throws, Goff was as dialed in as he's ever been in the 26th regular-season start of his career. Goff has used play-action more often than any quarterback this season, but some of his best throws came without it. The first video below shows his four touchdowns in the first half and the second is his fifth score of the night, a seam route that may have been the best of the bunch.
— Bob Pompeani (@KDPomp) September 28, 2018
— Son of Hollywood (@TheJohnnyCruz) September 28, 2018
There was a sequence where Minnesota's All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes took a dumb penalty, so he sat out the next play to cool down. McVay immediately had the offense attack with Brandin Cooks beating Trae Waynes deep for a 47-yard touchdown. The Rams also schemed to get linebacker Anthony Barr in bad matchups as he allowed three touchdowns on the night.
The impact of McVay's system on Goff is something we'll only hear less about if Goff continues to play at a high level like he has this month. In 2017, he was playing in the most YAC-friendly offense in the league, so his stats were a bit inflated. The Rams are still doing an excellent job with YAC this season, as Todd Gurley showed on a screen that popped for 56 yards last night, but Goff is also making a lot of spectacular throws as well.
Sean McVay Punted on a Belichick Moment
The Rams never trailed after late in the second quarter, but there were a few miscues on special teams that kept the Vikings within striking distance. In the third quarter, punter Johnny Hekker attempted a curious fake punt with a deep pass that Josh Reynolds never really looked for in the end zone. In replacing Greg Zuerlein, backup kicker Sam Ficken missed a 28-yard field goal with 8:21 left in the game while the Rams led 38-28. That could have been big, but Ndamukong Suh sacked Kirk Cousins on a key third down to force the Vikings into a field goal to make it 38-31.
Los Angeles could have run out the final 3:46 on the clock, but a bubble screen came up a yard short on third-and-7. The Vikings were a little slow (at least 10 seconds) to call their first timeout with 2:30 to play. McVay actually looked like he was going to keep the offense out there for a fourth-and-1 at his own 34. The offense lined up for a play, but did not snap the ball and used a timeout. McVay then sent the punt unit out and punted the ball back, giving Cousins one more chance to drive 66 yards with 2:20 left.
Should the Rams have gone for it? This probably would have been the most scrutinized fourth-down decision -- especially if it failed -- since the infamous fourth-and-2 that Bill Belichick went for from his own 28 against the Colts in 2009 on a Sunday night game. There were a few key differences here, and the fact that L.A. needed one fewer yard is actually not the main one. More importantly, the Vikings still had two timeouts and the two-minute warning. So even if the Rams converted, Minnesota could have still gotten the ball back with over a minute left. For the Patriots, there was 2:08 left and the Colts had one timeout. The fourth-and-2 play took the game to the two-minute warning, so if it had converted, then the Colts only had one clock stoppage left. They may have gotten the ball back with 15 or 20 seconds left, so that's a much bigger benefit from converting. The other key difference -- and this is where I always think Belichick errored -- is that New England was up 34-28 while the Rams were up 38-31. A touchdown and extra point would not have beaten the Rams, but it did beat the Patriots that night.
So had the Rams been able to deliver the knockout blow in a 7-point game, then I would have been very disappointed if McVay punted. However, since it wasn't a knockout situation, I think punting was the right move. Also, it's not like Cousins is equivalent to prime Peyton Manning in Indy, but that fact also seems to be going against the $84 Million Fully Guaranteed Man.
Captain Kirk's Latest Failed Mission
For the fifth time in his career, and the second time in three weeks, Kirk Cousins passed for over 420 yards with multiple touchdowns… and his team didn't win the game. Apparently Cousins should never go that high, because his teams are 0-3-2 when he passes for at least 400 yards and two touchdowns. There are 31 quarterbacks in NFL history with at least three such games, and only one player besides Cousins never had a win on one of those days.
|QBs: 400+ Passing Yards, 2+ TD Passes|
|Minimum 3 games (includes playoffs)|
Did you guess Tony Romo (0-4)? I hinted at this comparison on Twitter last night after the game, but that was hours before I looked into these numbers and found Romo was the only other one without a win on one of those big stat days.
Cousins just seems destined to always be on flawed teams that are still competitive mainly because of him, but every late-game failure is what he's going to be remembered for.
In other words, it didn't take long for the NFL to repackage us a Romo. https://t.co/qkfKUkseCJ
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 28, 2018
In Washington, Cousins had a reputation as a turnover machine and a stat-padder who folded in the big moments. After one month with Minnesota, he's not going to shake that reputation. The Buffalo strip-sacks aside, Cousins only had one turnover in the first two games: an interception that deflected right off of Laquon Treadwell's hands in Green Bay. However, detractors will be quick to point out that his second interception should have been costly had Clay Matthews not been penalized for a shady roughing the passer. Fair enough, but Cousins still led a brilliant game-tying drive and twice set up his kicker in overtime only to see him miss both kicks.
This time, Cousins was playing another impressive game on the road in trying to keep pace with Goff's historic night. When it came down to the final drive, 52 yards away from the end zone, edge pressure again got to him. John Franklin-Myers produced the strip-sack and the Rams recovered with 1:18 left. Gurley only needed a quick 10-yard run to end the game and drop the Vikings to a disappointing 1-2-1 start after a 13-3 season.
— NFL News (@NFLFBGAMETIME) September 28, 2018
We've seen more egregious things from Cousins in Washington, like when a strip-sack against the Eagles led to a late touchdown in Week 1 last season. When he threw a late interception in a Week 17 loss to the 2016 Giants when the Redskins could have been a wild-card team, people focused on that more than the non-wins earlier in the season where the defense (at Detroit) and kicker (against Cincinnati) let the team down at the end.
In true Romo fashion, people are going to forget the great throws from Cousins throughout the night to keep the Vikings in this game so that the last drive even mattered. The takeaway is his takeaway sealed another victory for the opponent, and that's just not fair on a night where he otherwise made very few mistakes. With the rich, fully-guaranteed contract, Cousins is expected to be almost perfect, but the Vikings are playing very imperfect football right now.
When I tweeted the following back in March, I wasn't making a doom-and-gloom prediction. I was pointing out how the high expectations for Cousins to take this team far this season could crumble in a hurry for factors out of his control.
"Kirk Cousins finally has a team around him!"
*Defense regresses to 24th after most injuries in 2018
*Dalvin Cook averages 3.5 YPC in return from injury
*Adam Thielen tears ACL Week 3
*Kicker misses 2 GW FG
"Oh well, can't take away 6 months of dreams. Or the cash."
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) March 13, 2018
Let's knock on wood that Thielen is fine after a quick concussion check last night, but Dalvin Cook has battled injury and is only averaging 2.7 yards per carry. There is no running game to speak of in Minnesota. The kicker and special teams were very costly in Green Bay in Week 2, but at least they added Dan Bailey there. The defense that was so good (and healthy) last year came into the week ranked 10th in DVOA and 14th in points per drive allowed. Those numbers are certainly going to get worse after the way the Rams exploded last night.
That just leaves the weakness of the team that we already knew was there, but may have understated: the offensive line. In Football Outsiders Almanac 2018, I questioned how big of an upgrade Cousins would be over Case Keenum because of the way Keenum handled pressure last season. He turned a lot of would-be sacks into positive plays and actually had a positive DVOA under pressure. Cousins has never been exceptional in that area, and we're seeing some of the issues there with the strip-sacks. Cousins has 17 fumbles since the start of 2017, a high number for any quarterback. It's not all pessimistic for Cousins under pressure this year. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Cousins now leads the league with three touchdown passes under pressure and his QBR under pressure (53.7) ranks sixth in the league.
But like with Romo, it comes down to the plays that people will remember most, so the untimely turnovers are a story until Cousins starts leading more scoring drives in those situations. Lest we forget, Romo retired with a very solid 30-34 (.469) record at game-winning drive opportunities. After this latest loss, Cousins is 12-19-2 (.394).
Minnesota Panic Level: Medium, But Rising
How worried should Minnesota fans be right now? I think anything involving the offensive line and running game are legitimate concerns for the rest of the season. The defense also hasn't forced a takeaway since Week 1. Hopefully Griffen can return soon to help put pressure on quarterbacks.
The good news for Minnesota is that the passing game has been generally strong this season, and that's the part of the team most likely to sustain success. Cousins has quickly developed a good rapport with Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who both went over 100 yards again. The Vikings are also wrapping up a very difficult stretch of road games at Green Bay, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The rest of the schedule doesn't really have anything as threatening as that save for maybe a trip to New England in Week 13.
The Rams looked to be in a higher class than the Vikings, but this is not a team to throw the towel in for yet. With Cousins and the passing game, Minnesota should be competitive all year. Unfortunately, relying so heavily on a quarterback to hover around .500 is exactly what happened in Washington for Cousins and in Dallas for Romo for years. I don't even think Cousins is as good as Romo was, but he sure seems to be taking up the mantle for being that guy with the nice numbers in losses.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 28, 2018