Don’t write off Redskins QB Kirk Cousins just yet

Despite the criticism through two games, analyst Zac Robinson explains why the Redskins QB can turn things around.

| 9 months ago
Redskins QB Kirk Cousins

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Don’t write off Redskins QB Kirk Cousins just yet

We’re just two weeks into the season, and already criticism seems to be coming in every direction (possibly even from his own teammates, according reports) on the play of Redskins QB Kirk Cousins and the team’s 0-2 start. It began after a Week 1 blowout loss to the Steelers, and continued with a close Week 2 loss to the Cowboys, which saw Cousins throw an ill-advised critical red-zone interception on third-and-goal from the 6-yard line in the fourth quarter. It’s no secret that quarterbacks are under a bigger microscope than most NFL players; with Cousins playing under the pressure of the franchise tag, has the criticism been fair, and what’s the real story? Let’s take an in-depth look at his play through two weeks.

High number of passing attempts

Cousins is currently tied for the NFL lead (with Blake Bortles) in passing attempts, at 89, a number that has risen that high for a couple reasons. The flow of the Week 1 game was off all night, with the defense’s inability to stop Antonio Brown or DeAngelo Williams forcing the Washington offense to throw the ball to get back in the game. This situation could not have played out better for an opposing defense, especially Pittsburgh’s unit.

The Steelers’ defense is predicated on stuffing the run and making the opposing quarterback play a patient game from the first snap with wide and deep-zone drops, forcing him to throw the ball underneath, and counting on the QB to lose patience and try to fire a ball downfield into a tight zone at some point. That is exactly what happened with Cousins; his first big mistake of the season came on a forced throw in a deep-drop, cover-3 zone interception downfield early in the third quarter, down 17-6 in the game. The Steelers went on to score, making it 24-6, putting the contest out of reach quickly after halftime. Cousins later had a batted pass at the line of scrimmage intercepted in the fourth quarter to give his stat line an ugly look of no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Redskins’ QB had a few uncharacteristic misses, and the costly third-quarter pick certainly hurt, but overall, it’s tough to pin the loss on his shoulders, as he made several high-level throws and reads to even make the score what it was.

Last week against the Cowboys, we saw a bit of a different story. Cousins ended with 46 passing attempts (fourth-most in Week 2) as Washington continually decided to throw the ball, handing it off to RB Matt Jones just 13 times. Cousins made a lot of throws, missing just a few targets/reads throughout the game. But of course, the story the game was the costly red-zone interception—the play you’ve likely seen recounted over and over again this week—with Washington up 23-20. The Cowboys were playing bracket coverage (in and out) on TE Jordan Reed on the play, with Barry Church having inside leverage. Reed broke out after 5 yards, freeing up Church to slide in front and make the interception; Cousins was looking left the entire way, and obviously did not see him. It was an inexcusable pick in that situation, and ultimately was the reason for the outcome of the game.

Redskins QB Kirk Cousins

Red-zone woes

Much of the talk has been has been about Cousins’ red-zone failures, specifically from the 10-yard line and in, where his stat line of two-for-nine for 5 yards and two interceptions certainly looks ugly. Cousins was incredibly effective in the red zone last season, throwing no interceptions and 22 touchdowns. When you break down his incompletions this year on each throw from inside the 10, though, is he really playing that poorly? His seven incompletions so far go as follows:

  • Interception thrown to Cowboys S Barry Church: No excuse, bad play, and incredibly costly.
  • Batted pass at line of scrimmage tipped in the air for an interception late in the fourth quarter against the Steelers: Bad luck.
  • Overthrow on a switch release, slot fade to TE Jordan Reed: Tight coverage, but not his best throw.
  • Two fades to rookie WR Josh Doctson: Doctson failed to hold his line and got pushed wide by the DB. Both were good throws from Cousins, Doctson should help him out here.
  • Throwaway: No one open, Cousins threw it out the back of the end zone.
  • Blatant missed call by the referees on a Morris Claiborne hold on Pierre Garçon: Timing route, front pylon throw with good ball location, 3rd-and-4, ballgame tied 20-20. This was an inexcusable missed call by the refs at a big moment of the game.

The margin of error in the NFL is so small. If that holding gets called like it should, and Washington punches it in, we could have a completely different tone on Cousins this week.

Manage the expectations, help him out

It’s easy to want to call pass after pass with Cousins and the pass-catching playmakers they have. He’s a high-percentage thrower—Cousins led the league with a 69.8 completion percentage last year—and one of the best post-snap processors in the NFL, owning an uncanny ability to work quickly through progressions and find an open receiver. Cousins’ greatest strength can at times be his biggest weakness, with him holding onto the ball a little long on occasion, milking the play for everything it’s worth.

However, there are only a few quarterbacks in the NFL who you can consistently rely on to make throw after throw each game with a high number of attempts and not turn the ball over at a high rate. At quarterback, you’re playing the percentages—eventually a bad decision will happen here and there, even with best signal callers. The flow of the Week 1 game dictated a high number of throws, but in Week 2 versus the Cowboys, a stronger commitment to the run may have alleviated some of the pressure on Cousins.

This leads us to the category of where Cousins excels the most: play action. This is an area which is obviously dependent on a play-caller’s willingness to call run plays to set up play-actions accordingly, and on the QB to execute when those opportunities present themselves. Last season saw Cousins top the NFL on play-action passes with a 129.1 QB rating, while also leading the league with 11.3 yards per attempt. Cousins currently leads the NFL in non-play-action dropbacks, at 76. Much of an offense’s big plays downfield come on play-action, and Washington will need to commit to the run to give Cousins an opportunity to succeed on play-action snaps, allowing the Redskins’ talented playmakers on the outside to do what they do best.

Going forward

Let’s keep in mind that Cousins started a little slow last season, as well. In the seven games before the bye week, he had nine touchdowns and eight interceptions before playing at a very high level the last half of the year. Is he pressing a little bit playing under the franchise tag? Maybe. Has he missed some throws you would expect him to hit? Absolutely. But with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon both in contract years, it’s easy to see why the sense of urgency is there in the passing game.

The connection with Jackson downfield has not been up to par yet, but you can expect those attempts to start hitting as they have in the past. Cousins is without a doubt in the top half of NFL starting quarterbacks that a team can consistently win with. Like any QB, he just needs a little help. While the turnovers have been timely/costly thus far, Washington’s offense needs to rally around him going forward and have everyone buying in, knowing this is their guy. With the resiliency Cousins has shown throughout his career, my bet is that he starts playing at a high level sooner rather than later.

| Analyst

Zac Robinson is a former three-year starting QB for Oklahoma State. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round in 2010, and spent time with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions before finishing his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • crosseyedlemon

    After all the disruptions the Redskins endured during the RG3 fiasco you would think they would welcome the chance to get behind a new leader and develop the solidarity required to be winners. For better of worse Cousins is the guy so any malcontents who aren’t willing to accept that need to sent packing.

  • LostAlone

    People really do underestimate just how important a balanced attack is to a QB achieving their potential. Run and pass play off each other. Running the ball sets up play action with favorable matchups. Pass plays ensure the the D can’t stuff the box which allows the run game to keep moving those chains. Even mediocre QBs can succeed given a reasonable running game. Forcing the defense to try and cover everyone leaves you with a good match up somewhere.

    It’s no surprise at all that middle-caliber QBs like Flacco and Smith and Kaepernic have excelled in years that they had a running game they could rely on. And equally, QBs like Roethlisberger and Brees and Rodgers have had dips when they had to rely on a sub-par running attack. It’s a team sport, guys.

    As for Cousins; honestly I think that we won’t see him return to his successes of last year but I do think that he’s being done no favors at all by the Skins coaching. It’s absolutely right that he excels in play action and trying to ask him to operate without a running game cuts his legs out from under him.

    • crosseyedlemon

      My only complaint with your comment is your listing Flacco with Smith and patriotic Colin. Joe has a 77-47 record as a starter and if that translates to being only mediocre then one has to wonder what record is needed to be considered good.

  • shaunhan murray

    When was the last time Cousins beat a bad team?

    • shaunhan murray

      *good team