Starting the season with low expectations, Washington was the surprise NFC East winner last year. Although they lost to the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card round, there is plenty for the team to build on going into next season. Kirk Cousins played a big part in Washington’s late run to the playoffs last season, and Joe Ferraiola reviews what worked for the fourth-year quarterback.
Washington was able to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012 after ending the 2015 season on a four-game winning streak. A big reason for that success down the stretch was the play of quarterback Kirk Cousins. The fourth-year signal caller had himself a career season, throwing for 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He began to play well after orchestrating a game-winning drive against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which his team came back from down 24-0 to win 31-30. The “You like that?” game seemingly was the turning point of Washington’s season, when Cousins’ and the team’s level of play began to rise.
Cousins was pretty much as effective and efficient as a quarterback can be down the stretch. He threw only two interceptions in Washington’s final eight games. Cousins does not possess the most gifted arm like Aaron Rodgers, but he does have enough accuracy to get the job done. While not the only indicator of passing accuracy, Cousins led the league in completion percentage at 69.8%. Many of his completions were on short passes and well-designed plays to pave a clearer throwing lane. However, he also made quick decisions and tough throws when he needed to.
Head coach Jay Gruden and his offensive staff did an excellent job of designing a game plan that fit Cousins’ strengths. The Washington offense was 23rd in plays run last season. The offense also controlled the ball majority of the time as they were tied for fourth in time of possession with 31:29. A lot of that had to do with the improvement of the run game with the addition of Bill Callahan and the zone-blocking scheme he brought with him from Dallas. Cousins did a nice job of playing off Washington’s improved run game by excelling at play-action plays.
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Washington is driving and facing a 3rd and 1 in its opening drive of the game. The offense has 12 personnel and a sixth lineman or the jumbo package on the field due to it being a short yardage situation. The extra lineman as well as two tight ends line up on the right side.
The play concept Washington runs is a Y-trade motion. It’s also a variation of spider 2 Y banana, Gruden’s favorite play. Cousins motions tight end Jordan Reed to the left side and quickly snaps the ball, running a bootleg to the right side. Motioning Reed made the possibility of a run more believable as Cousins faked the handoff. It tricked New Orleans’s defensive line as it had it flowing in the opposite direction. Reed runs to the flat to the side Cousins is rolling out. The safety that was originally covering Reed couldn’t react to the play and the TE is left open in the flat. Cousins completes the pass to Reed as he turns up field and gets a block at the goal line for a diving touchdown.
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This play against the Dallas Cowboys is akin to the play against the Saints. Once again Washington has a jumbo set with 12 personnel and an additional lineman. Cousins motions the tight end to the left side of the formation. Once he snaps the ball the tight end runs to the flat towards the boot. The difference in this play is the route run by the receiver and tight end. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder and Reed run crossing routes to set a pick against man coverage.
Cousins either goes through his progressions quickly and determines that Dallas linebacker Sean Lee reacted well to the motion, or the play is designed to go to one of the crossing routes. Either way Cousins waits for Crowder to gain enough separation via the pick created by the crossing routes and delivers an accurate pass for a 20-yard completion..
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This play displays Cousins’ ability to make quick decisions and deliver an accurate pass. Washington has 12 personnel in a double tight end set with both lined up off the line of scrimmage. Cousins snaps the ball and fakes the hand off to Alfred Morris. He runs the boot, but is met by a defender that wasn’t accounted for by the blocking up front. The QB stops and reacts quickly to deliver an accurate pass to Reed for a 5-yard gain. In hindsight this play should have been a false start as the offensive line and running back start before the ball is snapped.
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Here is another example of Cousins working well under pressure and off play-action. Washington has 11 personnel on this play in the first quarter of the same game against Philadelphia. Washington is down seven early in a game that could wrap up the NFC East division crown. The Eagles have a two-deep safety look with all the corners playing press coverage. Cousins sells the run perfectly on this play-action and is able to suck in the linebacker and one of the safeties. This allows Reed to run his route up the seam without a defender in striking distance. Cousins makes a good throw that puts Reed one broken tackle away from the goal line. The result is a Washington touchdown and a tie game.
Excellent play design playing to Cousins’ strengths is what led Washington to the playoffs a season ago. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the NFC East reacts to Washington’s play-action in 2016. Cousins will once again have to impress his bosses as Washington is content to let him play out the 2016 season with the franchise tag. If Cousins plays to his strengths he’ll be a comfortably paid quarterback next March.