Lessons learned from Kirk Cousins' third season with Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins capped off his 10-game resurgence with a walk-off NFC offensive player of the week honor after throwing for 405 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Detroit in the season finale.

It's the second time in five weeks Cousins received the award, a fitting footnote to a season rife with early turbulence only to finish on a positive note.

Cousins went from 10 interceptions in his first six games to capping off his sixth season as a starting QB with a career-best 35 touchdowns and his second-highest passer rating (105). Despite some struggles, Cousins still finished as a top-10 quarterback (ninth, according to PFF, down from fifth in 2019). Six of the eight QBs ahead of him led their teams to the playoffs.

It took the first half of the season for the Vikings to figure out how to best use Cousins in this scheme. It yielded the best version of the quarterback since he arrived as a free agent in 2018. The biggest takeaway for Vikings' brass is figuring out how to make this version of Cousins appear again in 2021.

Cousins is not standing in the way of the Vikings reaching their playoff goals. His success, however, hinges on an improved offensive line and the resurgence of a rebuilding defense.

Coach Mike Zimmer believes this was the most explosive offense he's had in his Minnesota tenure. The Vikings' 430 points scored are the third-most in franchise history but ranked 11th league-wide in a season in which scoring was up across the board. Minnesota was 10th in expected points added per play and fourth in yards.

The Vikings are just the ninth team in NFL history to feature a 1,500-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook) and 30-plus touchdown passer, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Each of the other eight teams won at least 10 games, including the 2020 Tennessee Titans. Minnesota finished the season with a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs.

While the Vikings' offense flourished at times -- Justin Jefferson had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a wide receiver -- the defense stumbled in a season that will be remembered for turnover, injuries and a steep learning curve for young players.

Cousins and the Vikings showed they could hang around with some of the league's best offenses like Tennessee and Seattle, even New Orleans. But Minnesota's defense, which ranked 29th, couldn't hold up its end. The 475 points allowed are also the third-most in team history. For the first time ever, the Vikings were outscored in a season where they scored at least 400 points.

"Let's be honest, you judge wins and losses in this league," Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "Everybody's trying to be a playoff team and then be the best team for one month. I know that's what this league is all about. We've done some good things on offense, we moved the ball, some guys had some good numbers. That's great, but that's all about winning."

The offensive continuity Zimmer so desperately wanted to carry over from 2019 to 2020 seemed to pay off, even if they couldn't always carry the weight of the entire team. The Vikings had 10 games decided by one possession or less this season.

With Cousins returning to an offense in 2021 with Jefferson, Cook, receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Irv Smith Jr., the issue won't be the weapons around him. The offensive line is a different story. Minnesota finished below the middle of the pack in pass protection (18th in pass-block win rate) with 20 of Cousins' 39 sacks attributed to the interior of the offensive line. Some of those sacks might be on Cousins for holding on to the ball too long, but it's evident the Vikings need to upgrade certain spots on the line.

"I like that group, but we'll have to see and if we can improve, we'll improve," Zimmer said.

Zimmer made clear he doesn't want wide-scale changes on offense if he searches for a replacement for Kubiak, who is mulling retirement.

"I love the scheme that we're running offensively, I love the wide zone offense, I love the play-action passes," Zimmer said. "All those things. A coach told me one time that your offense should be what your quarterback is best at. And that's what I feel Kirk is best at. Those kind of things are what makes him really good. So to me, that is really important."

The Vikings could benefit from tweaking their offensive philosophy, like being more aggressive passing early in games like they are late (Cousins had a 114.1 second-half passer rating and threw 25 second half/OT touchdowns compared to 10 in the first half). But don't expect their overall method to stray far from a run-first scheme.

The success of this Vikings' offense is reliant on the play of its defense. Zimmer's philosophy of having a strong defense combined with an offense that controls time of possession and limits turnovers won't work without an improved pass rush. The Vikings ranked 30th in rushing the passer. And they must get better at stopping the run (they ranked 32nd in run-block win rate). Addressing those needs in free agency and the draft is as important as getting the players who missed time this season back in 2021.

"A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass-rushers," Zimmer said. "So we need people that can rush the quarterback, whether it's a linebacker, a cornerback or safety you've got to have guys that can cover in today's NFL. So that makes a big difference."

Cousins showed his ability to bounce back from a disastrous start. Against Detroit in Week 17, Cousins became the fifth QB with 250 passing yards and three touchdowns in a half this season, joining Tom Brady, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

It's play like that, along with his improved scrambling ability and his accuracy (Cousins finished with the eighth-lowest percentage of uncatchable passes thrown, according to PFF), that leaves the Vikings confident QB play isn't their issue. They don't have to try and orchestrate a blockbuster trade to move away from Cousins and his massive contract this offseason, but they do need to address the areas of need around him this offseason.