Former Vikings GM: Cousins Had Career-Best Game on MNF
Monday night’s exciting upset win over the mighty 49ers was likely the best game of Kirk Cousins’ 12-year NFL career, considering the national prime-time stage, the quality of the opponent, and the stakes for the Vikings to gain momentum in the playoff chase. The team improved to 3-4 with three wins in the last four games as they head to Green Bay for the border battle, with the 5-2 Lions showing vulnerability after being crushed in Baltimore.
Former Vikings GM: Cousins Had Career-Best Game on MNF
Cousins passed for 378 yards and two touchdowns with terrific accuracy as he stepped up under pressure from San Francisco’s fierce defense that was No. 1 last season and came into the game ranked third this season. This was a 49ers team that clobbered the Cowboys 42-10 in Week 5.
It was a statement game for the Vikings and included some anxious moments at the end. It reminded me of the upset win in Buffalo last season that helped build confidence in the 13-win season. It was potentially a season-altering performance to win against a top-quality team while playing for a second straight week without Justin Jefferson. First-round pick Jordan Addison, T. J. Hockenson, and the offensive line with impressive addition Dalton Risner played strong supporting roles for Cousins, along with an excellent game plan from Coach Kevin O’Connell.
And it was surprising to see the defense stop the run so effectively (only 65 yards allowed) against an excellent rushing team (third-ranked entering the game with an average of 148 yards per game led by Christian McCaffrey as the league’s leading rusher. The Vikings D also had three takeaways, including the game-clinching, leaping interception by safety Cam Bynum with 30 seconds remaining. It was the second straight week the Vikings won the turnover battle and the game after falling short on the turnover ratio in the first five games.
Now, the Vikings have made it through the toughest part of their schedule with five of the first seven games against 2022 playoff teams, including the Super Bowl teams—Kansas City and Philadelphia—and a Final Four team in San Francisco. But the Vikings need to keep the positive momentum going on the road the next two weeks with challenging games at rival Green Bay and NFC South-leading Atlanta before three very winnable games (home to Chicago and New Orleans and at Denver).
Here are my other reactions to the Vikings-49ers game:
1. Perhaps the most impressive thing we saw was how the Vikings went toe-to-toe and didn’t back down at all on both sides of the ball against one of the most physical teams in the NFL. Yes, the 49ers were missing stars Trent Williams at left tackle and Deebo Samuel at wide receiver, but the Vikings were without their best player in Jefferson, starting guard Ezra Cleveland, and one of their key defenders in Marcus Davenport (who I don’t think they can count on to stay healthy for long once he recovers from his high ankle sprain but edge/outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum has stepped up his game lately).
It was the best game by the Vikings offensive line in the past several years, with no sacks allowed and doing enough in the running game (74 yards on 21 carries) to keep a top defense off balance. The team’s Pro Bowl-caliber tackles—Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill—were outstanding, O’Neill especially as he kept last year’s league-leading sacker Nick Bosa off Cousins.
And I thought Risner brought an extremely impressive physical element at guard. He needs to stay in the starting lineup once Cleveland recovers from his ankle injury, whether it’s in place of Cleveland (a free-agent-to-be) or Ed Ingram (who does seem to be improving at right guard, but I’m not sure he can be fully trusted yet).
2. It speaks loudly of the offense’s potential when they don’t turn it over (except for the initial interception that Addison should’ve at least broken up), don’t take too many penalties, and convert on third downs (8 of 13). For the Vikings offense to have 452 total yards against that stout defense was unexpected and very impressive.
It struck me to think of how special this offense can be in a few weeks when Jefferson returns, and he, Addison, Hockenson, and an improving O-line are working with Cousins if he continues to play at the elite level we saw on Monday night. Troy Aikman continually praised Cousins during the broadcast and called him a top-10 QB, high praise from a Hall of Fame QB.
3. Addison and Hockenson delivered big-time performances: they were great in this game, making difficult catches and Addison’s steal of a 50-50 ball from Charvarius Ward for the 60-yard TD as Cousins beat an all-out blitz at the end of the first half was the biggest play in the game. This made up for Ward outbattling Addison on the opening drive interception.
It looks like Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah missed on Lewis Cine as the first-round pick in 2022. He was a healthy inactive against the 49ers and has been unable to claim one of the three starting safety spots. His fellow safety from that draft class, Kyle Hamilton, is a star in Baltimore, and he was available to the Vikings if they hadn’t traded down.
But it’s obvious so far that Adofo-Mensah hit it big with Addison as this year’s first-round pick at No. 23 overall. He had seven catches for 123 yards and 2 TDs vs. the 49ers and is currently second in the league with six TD catches (most among rookie receivers), a terrific start to his career (and he’s only 21 years old).
Hockenson looked like the Pro Bowler he was last season with 11 catches for 86 yards and no drops after his four dropped balls the past two weeks. O’Connell did a great job scheming both players open, and they both showed toughness by returning to the game after minor injuries.
Brandon Powell made several tough catches and is proving to be an important depth player. K.J. Osborn had a great 14-yard leaping grab in the second quarter on a field goal drive, but he couldn’t come up with the difficult diving catch on the last drive on a great deep throw from Cousins.
4. Only a shaky performance from kicker Greg Joseph and two red-zone failures by the offense were negatives for the Vikings. They had to settle for field goals after a 1st-and-Goal at the 2-yard line in the second quarter and 1st-and-Goal at the 1 in the third quarter. That cost the Vikings eight points (the difference between two TDs and two field goals). Joseph had a missed PAT, and he was wide right from 50 yards with 1:16 remaining to give the 49ers a shot to win the game (or tie it if Joseph had made the field goal to go up by eight points).
I also didn’t like O’Connell’s decision to run the ball three straight times on the last offensive series when Cousins was so hot on the night, and one more first down would’ve finished off the 49ers, who had no timeouts left and couldn’t cover Addison or Hockenson.
Cam Akers continues to look better than Alexander Mattison and needs more snaps (Mattison had 10 more snaps than Akers). His 30-yard catch and run on a screen play set up a 1st-and-Goal in the second quarter that led to a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
5. DC Brian Flores has stepped up his defensive play-calling the past two weeks in the wins over the Bears and 49ers as he has kept the opposition off balance following shaky games against the Eagles, Chargers, and Chiefs.
It was good to see Bynum make two difficult interceptions in the fourth quarter—one diving and one leaping—after he mistimed his jump on a Patrick Mahomes long pass he should’ve picked off that resulted in a big play for the Chiefs in their Week 5 win. Bynum also made the big tackle on McCaffrey that enabled Harrison Smith to force a key fumble at the Vikings 11-yard line (recovered by Dean Lowry) on the 49ers first series that offset the interception on the Vikings first series. That led to the excellent 89-yard drive for the Vikings first score on a great route by Addison and perfect throw by Cousins for the 20-yard TD.
6. The Vikings need to improve their kickoff coverage, as the 49ers had a 34-yard return, or better yet, Joseph needs to kick the ball out of the end zone.
7. It was important for the Vikings to get their first home win of the season after three losses (the team has never started 0-4 at home). Brock Purdy played with poise despite the noisy as usual Vikings crowd until his poor throws on the two critical fourth-quarter interceptions. Purdy is now 10-2 as a starter in regular season games during his two-year career. He was clearly outplayed by Cousins on this night.
8. It will be a fun week with positive vibes from the Monday night victory and the rivalry game against the Packers coming up on Sunday at Lambeau Field. The Vikings better practice outside in the elements this week, with the forecast for a high of 45 and possible rain on Sunday.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Lions exposed in thrashing by Ravens? I picked Baltimore to beat Detroit, but I didn’t expect the total beatdown the now 5-2 Lions received in a game they were dominated on both sides of the ball. Lamar Jackson was outstanding with 357 yards passing and four TDs (three passing, one rushing), and the Ravens rushed for 146 yards (503 total yards for Baltimore). The Ravens defense held the Lions to 337 total yards, sacked Jared Goff five times, and intercepted him once.
We’ll see how the Lions play the rest of the season, but I thought it was premature to include them as Super Bowl contenders after their 5-1 start, considering their defense ranked last in 2022 and has better talent this year but still has a ways to go against top teams as the Ravens showed in scoring touchdowns on their first four drives. The Lions had been outgained 325-13 by the mid-second quarter when they finally picked up their initial first down.
Kevin O’Connell and his offensive coaches should closely study this game tape when the Vikings prepare to meet the Lions in Weeks 16 and 18.
2. The Packers had a tough loss in Denver against the lousy Broncos to drop to 2-4 (with three straight losses) heading into hosting the Vikings next Sunday. Jordan Love’s fourth interception in the last two games on an underthrown pass with 1:37 remaining ruined the Packers bid for a comeback from 9-0 and 16-3 deficits. Green Bay has been outscored 63-6 in the first half of their last four games. Love had a hot start to the season but has cooled off significantly lately, which should be a good omen for the Vikings D.
3. In other noteworthy games from Sunday, the Eagles and Chiefs won big home games over the Dolphins and Chargers, respectively. Jalen Hurts beat his former Alabama teammate Tua Tagovailoa, while Patrick Mahomes gashed the Chargers for 424 passing yards and four TDs to increase the Chiefs’ AFC West lead to 3 ½ games.
The cream is rising to the top, with last year’s two Super Bowl teams—Kansas City and Philadelphia—holding the NFL’s best records through seven weeks at 6-1.
Chiefs All-Pro Tight end Travis Kelce had another huge game with 12 catches for 179 yards (1 TD). K.C. Coach Andy Reid had a good post-game line regarding Kelce and Taylor Swift’s relationship, saying, “Taylor can stay around all she wants.”
4. New England upset Buffalo on Mac Jones’ 1-yard TD pass to Mike Gesicki with 12 seconds left. The win left the Bills at 4-3 and lifted the Pats to 2-5 in Bill Belichick’s 300th regular season coaching win to rank third all-time behind Don Shula (328) and George Halas (318). Including playoffs, Belichick has 330 wins, second only to Shula’s 347, but Belichick’s all-important six Super Bowl victories are the most all-time.
5. The Vikings’ Week 6 win in Chicago looks better after seeing the Bears whip the Raiders 30-12 behind D’Onta Foreman’s three TDs and rookie QB Tyson Bagent’s first career win in a solid performance as he replaced injured Justin Fields with 162 passing yards and no turnovers against the Raiders D that intercepted Green Bay’s Love three times in Week 5.
I’m back with my Vikings-Packers prediction on Friday in a pressure-packed border battle that the Vikings need to win so they can get back to .500 and keep their recent positive momentum going.
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Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl