Defense, not Kirk Cousins, to blame for Vikings struggles this season

(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Vikings find themselves poised to make the playoffs this season, yet plenty of criticism is pointed in the wrong direction.

Has the time come to stop placing the struggles of the Minnesota Vikings on the shoulders, or more accurately, the right arm of quarterback Kirk Cousins?

Through 13 games this season, Cousins is statistically one of the top passers in the NFL and a legitimate MVP candidate. He is currently ranked in the top five in touchdown passes (fifth), passer rating (third), yards per attempt (third), completion percentage (fourth), interception percentage (third) and touchdown percentage (fifth).

For comparison, the only category that Aaron Rodgers is ahead of Cousins in this year is interception percentage. Rodgers, with only two interceptions on the season, leads the league with the lowest percentage at 0.5 percent. Cousins’ interception rate is 1.0 percent with only four interceptions on the year.

Currently with 3,274 passing yards, Cousins is on pace to exceed 4,000 yards this season. He is one of only four quarterbacks to pass for more than 4,000 yards in franchise history of the Vikings.

For Cousins, this is not a big deal. He has exceeded 4,000 passing yards every season since becoming a full-time NFL starter in 2015. Over his last four seasons, he averaged 4,368 passing yards. The only Vikings’ quarterback to ever achieve back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons is Warren Moon who did it back in 1994 and 1995.

The one area where Cousins pales in comparisons is game-winning drives. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson leads the NFL with five of them and Rodgers is tied for seventh with two.

This is something that has plagued Cousins in Minnesota. In his six seasons with the Washington Redskins, he had 12 game-winning drives and led the league with four in 2017. So it is not unprecedented for Cousins to engineer a game-winning drive.

Cousins, who came from the Redskins with a 35-37-2 record as the starting quarterback, is currently 18-11-1 in his second season with the Vikings. His winning percentage with Minnesota is 0.600. While it’s a small sample size, it does compare favorably with Rodgers (.643) and Wilson (.680).

So what should concern Vikings’ fans as the season winds down?

For just about anyone who has watched most of this season, the answer is as plain as an Xavier Rhodes limp after yielding a long completion—the defense, and specifically the passing defense.

The real mystery here is what has happened to Minnesota’s defense over the past three seasons? Since 2017, when the defense finished first in both yards and points allowed, the Vikings starting defense has been essentially the same.

Before placing linebacker Ben Gedeon on injured reserve back on December 4, Minnesota started the same nine players. The only changes made were at defensive tackle and strong safety. Tom Johnson started 15 games in 2017 followed by Sheldon Richardson starting all 16 games last season. With Richardson signing with the Cleveland Browns in the most recent offseason, a decision I am sure he now regrets, Shamar Stephen has taken over starting every game in 2019.

In 2017 Andrew Sendejo started 13 games at strong safety. In 2018 that dropped to five games as Anthony Harris took over making nine starts in 2018 and 12 starts in 2019.

That’s nine positions with the same starter over the last three seasons, yet the defense dipped slightly in 2018 to fourth in yards allowed with a much sharper drop this season to 14th. The trend is the same in scoring defense. In 2017 the Vikings’ opponents scored only 15.8 points per game. Last season that rose to 21.3 points per game and this season team is allowing 19.2 points per game.

The biggest area the defense has fallen is passing yards allowed. A top-five defense the past two seasons, the Vikings have dropped to 16th this year allowing 236 passing yards per game. That’s 40 yards more per game than last season—an increase of 20 percent.

The 1.7 touchdown passes the defense is allowing per game puts them 19th in the league. Last year they led the NFL at 0.9 touchdown passes per game.

The drop is obvious when taking a look at the play of Vikings’ starting cornerbacks, Rhodes and Trae Waynes. Rhodes is allowing an 81.3 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 124.8 this year and Waynes hasn’t been much better at 73.0 percent completion and a 109.9 passer rating.

The other area the defense has suffered is third-down conversions. The last two seasons Minnesota’s defense was tops in the NFL in stopping teams on third down. In 2017, they held opponents to 25 percent on third down. That increased slightly in 2018 to 30 percent, but it still led the league.

This season the Vikings are allowing opponents to convert on third down at a rate of 39 percent, that’s good for only 17th place in the NFL. That leads to more offensive plays and longer drives. With the defense on the field longer, it’s giving opposing quarterbacks more time to pick on Rhodes and Waynes.

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Excluding a complete collapse on both sides of the ball, Minnesota is still in a position to make the playoffs this season. If they fail along the way, don’t be so quick to place the blame on their quarterback—and look for head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings to draft another cornerback in the first round in 2020.