Kirk Cousins is at his best when pressure is cranked up

EAGAN, Minn. -- Sustained quarterback success in the NFL is often derived from making plays while under pressure and/or in a less-than-desirable pocket. Whether it’s a weakened offensive line, facing a plethora of elite pass-rushers or seeing pressure frequency rise in correlation with blitzes, a handful of circumstances determine why some quarterbacks are forced to throw under duress more than others.

Production will suffer for some, but in the case of Kirk Cousins, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback is actually seeing his output near its best in the face of constant pressure.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cousins has been pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks through five games, which is the 13th highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks. With pass-rushers breathing down his neck aiming to disrupt the pocket and get home on the quarterback, Cousins has been forced to get rid of the ball quickly. His average time in the pocket is 2.03 seconds this season, which is the fourth fastest in the NFL.

As evidenced by a handful of throws Cousins made in the Vikings win over the Eagles, including the 68-yard pass to Adam Thielen he executed while getting hit at his own 5-yard line, the Minnesota QB has had to rely on the chemistry he has built with his receivers to know that they’re going to be in the spots they’re supposed to, even if he has to throw the ball before they get there.

Cousins’ 64.7 completion percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt under pressure rank second and fifth, respectively. His 51 passing attempts when pressured are the most of any QB without an interception in that situation this season, and he has three touchdowns in those situations.

Throwing from a clean pocket is obviously preferred, but Cousins hasn’t seen that much of a bump in production. His completion percentage is higher (72 percent) when not throwing under duress, and he has thrown seven touchdowns from a clean pocket, but his yards per attempt is lower (7.4) and his two interceptions came when he had more time to throw.

Part of the reason he’s having success is the experience he has gained from these situations. During three years as a starter in Washington, Cousins was pressured on 25.0 percent of his dropbacks. Everything from understanding how to manipulate protections, trusting his receivers to know their route depths, angle and how to create separation to get open quickly helps him beat pressure.

Oftentimes, Cousins says, if more of his offensive personnel are in pass protection, he actually has more vacant space to work with on the back end.

“Sometimes you love seeing pressure, because you say, ‘Now I only have to go against three deep/three under as opposed to three deep/four under, which opens up a zone,” Cousins said. “And if our back, our tight end or our line can pick it up, now I’m free to sit back there and have more space to throw.”

One of the ways Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo helps Cousins mitigate pressure is by utilizing play-action. Moving where the quarterback is in the pocket is the same concept that frustrated the Vikings' defensive line in establishing a pass-rush against opposing QBs early on. Cousins’ 81.6 completion percentage with play-action passes ranks first in the NFL, and he has been pressured on 38.5 percent of his play-action plays.

“If you do a good job in the running game, you can get some of the underneath guys sucked up a little bit and possibly safeties, depending on coverage and things like that,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It just opens up a lot more areas to manipulate the field.”

Much has been made of the Vikings' offensive imbalance and Cousins’ pace to throw for 5,402 yards this season. With the run game struggling, the Vikings have leaned on using quick screens to force plays to the perimeter.

“The screen game is huge,” Zimmer said. “You see more and more of it and all around the league now, especially off of play-action, because linebackers start to hopefully get depth and get out of there and then the line has a chance to sift over toward to where they’re in front of the running back.”

It's also a concept that has helped Cousins when he’s facing more than a four-man rush. The Vikings QB has a 110.9 passer rating when blitzed, which is the seventh-best among all QBs. Knowing how to diagnose these blitzes relies first and foremost on getting the ball out quickly.

“We always talk about, 'What are you going to do if it's not there?' and what's your answer to get the ball out of your hand if you got fooled?’” Cousins said. “And so that's very important to know where that element is, and that quick pass, that outlet, to get the ball out of your hands, and some plays have better ones than others, but just always asking yourself that question is very important to stay ahead of what a defense does throw at you.”

A clean pocket is always desired but not always attainable. Moreover, keeping a quarterback upright and limiting the hits he takes each game is part of the process in scheming around pressure. Through five games, Cousins has shown how well he can perform under these circumstances.