Kirk Cousins Is On Pace for the Most Batted Passes Ever Recorded In a Season. Why?

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Kirk Cousins currently leads the NFL in batted passes.  His 14 batted passes would be second most among all QBs for the entirety of last year’s season, and Cousins is not even halfway into this year.

Cousins is currently on pace for 32 batted passes.  The most batted passes that PFF has recorded in a season is 23 in 2006.  Cousins is on pace to beat that by week 13.

Watch all 14 of his batted passes this season here:

What’s going on?

Bad luck?

It’s possible that Cousins’ batted passes are just a stroke of bad luck.  After all, Cousins hasn’t had this problem in previous years.  Moreover, Cousins wasn’t leading the league in batted passes until the Cardinals game in week six.  Five of Cousins’ batted passes came in that one game.  Maybe this is all just a weird fluke.

But if batted passes are random and normally distributed, then Cousins’ 14 batted passes fall three standard deviations away from the rest of the league this season.  So while Cousins may have had some bad luck, that probably doesn’t explain the issue entirely.

Does Cousins Have a Tell?

Cousins has a compact, quick release that ordinarily would make it nearly impossible for defensive linemen to anticipate Cousins’ throws in time.  But if Cousins had a tell or a signal that he was about to pass, defenses could key in to that tell, resulting in a lot more batted passes.

And indeed that’s something that Cousins himself admitted could be leading to all the batted passes, as he explained to The Athletic‘s Arif Hasan after the Jets game (as Hasan relayed on The Daily Norseman‘s Norse Code podcast):

I asked [Cousins], “To what extent are tipped passes a problem that kind of falls on you that are correctable, and to what extent are they these excellent defensive performances from the players you’ve been up against in the last couple games?”  …[Cousins] talked about sometimes tipped passes come from defenses figure some tell, sometimes they come from a specific defensive look, or the kind of things that they want to do on that play.  Maybe they don’t necessarily want to get pressure, they maybe just want to bat the ball down, maybe they know how you’re using your passing lane in a particular way, maybe they’ve figured out an appropriate timing.”

(emphasis added)

The fact that Cousins is not only aware that the batted passes might be a result of defenses figuring out a tell, but that it’s the first possible explanation he suggests, reinforces the plausibility of that explanation.

And it’s been noted that Cousins has a tendency to pat the ball with his left hand immediately prior to throwing the ball.  Watch the seven batted passes below and notice how Cousins almost telegraphs the throw by patting the ball immediately before the throw:

If this is something fans and analysts can see plainly, it’s almost certainly something defensive coordinators have noticed as well.  And it’s equally certain the Vikings have noticed and looked into it as well.

But more importantly, now that the Cardinals seem to have keyed into this tendency and produced five batted passes in one game, future defensive coordinators are going to key into that tell all the more, until Cousins fixes it.

Playcalling issues?

The other explanation that may be contributing to Cousins’ batted passes is that DeFilippo is calling plays that are susceptible to passes being batted down.  And in fact, that is the answer that both Zimmer and Cousins pointed to when asked about particular plays.

In his post game presser after the Cardinals game, Zimmed tried to explain the five batted passes:

Some of them were quick passes, where the line was sliding one way and the back was going the other way and we were cutting the defensive end with the back. There was two times they jumped over the top of them and tipped the ball down. One time he ended up sacking him. There was one when we ran a naked and we left a guy alone on that side who wasn’t blocked—so basically a few of the times were when we didn’t block. There were a couple times where we got pushed back a little bit and guys got their hands up. One of the early ones, maybe the third down or fourth down early in the game, I think we got pushed back on those two.

Cousins went into even greater detail:

One was a keeper, so I attribute it to an unblocked end that we’re trying to influence with the run fake—he doesn’t buy it, and then I’ve got to touch it up and over.  If I touch it too much the safety drives down and blows up C.J. [Ham], so I was just trying to get it up and over quick.  I made that throw several times this season, but that one he got.  Other ones were quick game and I felt like a back’s trying to cut the end and get hands down, but then the end could get back up and he got that one.  The last one was regular protection.  I don’t even know who batted it.  It just is what it is, but I thought it was more a credit the Cardinals defense and their scheme and the way they played and they were ready to bat balls down then it was anything we were doing.

Both Zimmer and Cousins keyed in on two explanations: (1) the pass deflections came largely on “quick passes” or in the “quick game,” and (2) deflections were aided by defensive linemen going unblocked, either by play design (e.g. the naked bootleg) or failure to execute (a poor cut block).

Both those explanations match the tape: DeFillippo has frequently relied on a quick passing game, which has resulted in Cousins having the league’s third-lowest average depth of target.  Cousins is throwing a lot of quick, short throws, and perhaps defenses are countering those plays not by abandoning the pass rush (because the ball will be out before they can get home) and instead trying to clog throwing lanes.  That helps explain the goal line quick slant to Diggs that was deflected, or the four pass deflections on three-step dropbacks (two from Benson Mayowa and two from Leonard Williams), among others.

The unblocked linemen also match up with the play calling, as DeFilippo has frequently left defensive linemen unblocked, whether on screens, boots, zone reads or other plays.  And it does help explain the deflection on the naked bootleg, the deflection on the Cardinals’ RPO and the deflections on poor RB cut blocks.

There is no denying that the Vikings and Cousins have a batted passes problem: They lead the league in batted passes at an unprecedented rate.  They have caused a 3.4% drop in Cousins’ completion percentage.  Most importantly, they have killed several drives, including five deflections on third down on another on fourth down.

Whether the deflections are a result of Cousins’ telegraphing his throws by tapping the ball or some other tell, or are a result of the offensive play calling, it is clear that the Vikings need to address the issue, before defenses make the issue even worse.