Many NFL quarterbacks don’t excel moving to their left. As a right-handed thrower, a move to the left forces the quarterback to readjust his body to be in an optimal position to throw. Quarterbacks will more often roll out to their right, which already puts them in a more natural position to throw the ball.
Kirk Cousins is an exception to that rule and has killed when rolling out to his left this season. This is a trend we noticed after Week 11 and it has stuck over the past few weeks. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Cousins has 32 drop backs that have been designed rollouts to his left, easily the most in the league, double the next highest number — Jared Goff at 16. It’s not just that the Minnesota Vikings use these plays at such a high rate (an average of more than two per game) but Cousins has been wildly successful on these designed throws.
So far this season, Cousins has completed 25 of his 32 passes (78.1%) on designed rollouts to his left. On those attempts, he’s thrown for 407 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. He’s also put up 28.1 Expected Points Added on those attempts with a positive play rate of 71.9%. These numbers greatly surpass what the rest of the league has done on these rollouts.
|Player||Drop Backs||Comp%||YPA||TD/INT||EPA/DB||Positive Play%|
|Rest of NFL||193||67.2%||6.1||11/3||0.08||55%|
Cousins also led the league in these attempts last season, but had just 14. Those produced 13 completions for 147 yards and two touchdowns. There was a layer of success there already, but with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski at the helm in 2019, that strength has been maximized in the offense.
In terms of individual production this season, Jimmy Garoppolo comes close to Cousins. Garoppolo is 9-of-12 on designed rollouts to his left for 169 yards and two touchdowns. His 14.0 yards per attempt eclipse Cousins and his 0.83 EPA per drop back just slightly trails the Minnesota quarterback but the two have gotten there in vastly different ways. Just 30.2% of Garoppolo’s yards have come through the air with nearly 70% from his receivers after the catch. Meanwhile, 60.7% of Cousins yards have come through the air.
That’s part of what makes Cousins’s ability to go to his left so dangerous. When many other quarterbacks roll to their left, it’s an attempt to get something open quickly. When Cousins does it, there’s a good chance for a shot down the field.
The Vikings have been able to marry their run and play-action game together so well, it’s been one of the best play-action offenses in the league. Minnesota has used play-action on 31% of drop backs, which is the third-highest rate in the league and the Vikings average 9.1 yards per play off play-action, which ranks sixth. That general success adds an extra layer of deception when Cousins is asked to go to his left.
On this 51-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs in Week 6 against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings used play-action to the right against a single-high safety look. The run fake froze defenders and a shallow cross from tight end Kyle Rudolph froze the safety. That left both Diggs and Adam Thielen on the right side wide open options for a touchdown.
One downside to designed rollouts is they often cut the field in half, leaving the quarterback with a condensed field of options to target. With Cousins and the Vikings’ rollout game, that’s not the case. Cousins can be so quick and efficient in turning his body to throw, the entire field can be opened up when he goes to his left.
Here’s a 35-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen in Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders. Thielen lined up in the left slot and took his route across the field to his right. The play-action and rollout bought enough time for Cousins to turn his hips, set his feet, and throw to Thielen on the opposite side of the field.
What also stands out about Cousins moving to his left is how much better he’s been at that than rolling out to his right. Cousins has done that 21 times this season, 14th-most among quarterbacks, and it’s resulted in no touchdowns, an interception, and a sub-50% positive play rate.
|Rollout Direction||Drop Backs||Comp%||YPA||TD/INT||EPA/DB||Positive Play%|
Another piece that makes these rollouts work so well is the different looks the Vikings have given before the play. The deeper shots have come from midfield to the 35, but Minnesota has also been able to use this at the goal line:
Cousins is one of four quarterbacks to rollout left within five yards of the goal line twice and the only quarterback of that group with two completions.
Most recently, the Vikings also added another wrinkle — using the fake and rollout from shotgun. Against the Denver Broncos in Week 11, Cousins faked the handoff to Dalvin Cook from shotgun, where just 8.8% of Cook’s runs have started, rolled to his left, and gave Stefon Diggs time to get down the field from the right for a 54-yard touchdown.
This is just a small part of what Cousins and the Vikings have been able to find success doing on offense this season, but it’s also a fairly important detail when describing why this offense has clicked to a unit that’s sixth in passing DVOA this season. A marriage between scheme and player strength is the ideal for any team and the Vikings getting the most out of their quarterback’s ability to go left might be 2019’s best example.