On a pleasant Sunday in Landover, Maryland, approximately 80,000 football fans were still settling into their seats when Robert Griffin III attempted a pass on Washington’s second possession. Griffin landed awkwardly on his left ankle, suffering a dislocation, and is expected to be sidelined for at least six weeks. As Washington again turns to third-year backup Kirk Cousins, we took a look at Cousins’ film to highlight what fans in the nation’s capital can expect from the former Michigan State Spartan.
In evaluating Cousins, what first stood out was his efficiency on play-action throws. First under former head coach Mike Shanahan, and now under first-year head coach Jay Gruden, Washington relies on play action to create throwing windows for the quarterback. On these plays, Cousins shows great technique in executing the fake and solid mechanics in making a throw.
Cousins made his first NFL start in Cleveland during his rookie season with Washington in the playoff hunt late in the year. Cousins led Washington to their fifth straight win to keep their post-season hopes alive. The rookie threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns in the road victory. The first play we’ll look at took place early in the second quarter of that game, with Washington facing 2nd and 6 on their own 37-yard line. They come out with 12 personnel, using wing trips to the right and with wide receiver Pierre Garçon split to the left. Cleveland shows Cover 1 using their base 4-3 defense. Washington runs a play-action fake to the right, and Cousins comes back with a strike to Garçon over the middle.
The end-zone view shows Cousins executing this play flawlessly. He carries out the fake handoff and immediately plants his right foot. Then he wheels his head to pick up Garçon’s location and delivers a great throw for a 16-yard gain.
Last week Cousins entered the game in the first quarter after Griffin suffered his ankle injury. On the final play of the that period, Washington has a 1st and 10 on the Jacksonville 24-yard line. The offense has their 22 personnel in the game with a wing tight end to the right and an I-formation in the backfield. They fake an off-tackle run using Alfred Morris to the left and Cousins comes out of the fake on a half rollout back to his right. As he comes out of the play fake, Cousins again turns his head to quickly locate tight end Niles Paul who is running a corner route. Cousins sets his feet and makes a quick throw to Paul, leading him to the outside and away from the coverage. On this play, Cousins shows great technique in carrying out the fake and then locating his receiver for a big gain.
One more example of Cousins making a big play in the play-action game comes from his first pro start. Trailing 7-0 late in the first quarter, Washington has taken over near midfield after a short punt. This is a perfect situation for both play-action and a deep play, and Cousins delivers. The offense has 21 personnel on the field, with a tight end and wide receiver to the left, a split receiver to the right, and an I-formation in the backfield. The Browns are in their base 4-3 and run Cover 2 in the secondary. After a fake off-tackle run to the left, Cousins comes back to the right on a roll-out, and finds receiver Leonard Hankerson on a deep post route. Cousins throws a great deep ball that goes for 54 yards and a touchdown
Touch and Accuracy on Deep Throws
While a strong arm is important for a quarterback, success on deep passes also depends on pinpoint targeting and deft control of ball speed and trajectory. Here are two examples from Cousins’ second career start last season in Atlanta. On the first play, Washington has just taken over following a touchback and faces 1st and 10 from their own 20. They have 12 personnel on the field with one tight end aligned as an H-back and a slot formation look to the right. Cousins fakes a handoff to Morris and then takes a deep drop in the pocket. He recognizes that wide receiver Aldrick Robinson has beaten the coverage and loads up for a deep throw downfield. His mechanics are excellent as he drives off his plant foot using a quick release with the throw leading Robinson downfield. It takes a great play from the defender to stop a touchdown.
In the second quarter of that Week 15 contest, Cousins again hits a deep throw down the field, this time for a touchdown to Garçon. Trailing by 10, Washington has 11 personnel aligned with trips to the right and Garçon split to the left. Garçon makes a double move on the outside and Cousins helps adjust the secondary with a pump fake to Garçon. The wide receiver beats the coverage deep and Cousins makes a great throw, leading Garçon to the outside and away from the coverage for a touchdown.
Great on the Run
While he will never be mistaken for Robert Griffin III when running with the ball, Cousins also seems very comfortable moving in the pocket and throwing on the run. Here are two examples that demonstrate Cousins’ ability to throw accurately while on the move.
On the first play, Washington has their 22 personnel on the field with a wing to the right and the running backs in the I formation. Atlanta counters with their base 4-3 alignment and personnel and shows Cover 1 in the secondary. Washington fakes the off-tackle run to the left and Cousins comes back to the right on a rollout. While still on the run, he finds his tight end Fred Davis on a corner route for a touchdown.
This angle illustrates how Cousins delivers an accurate throw while moving his feet. With the coverage closing in on Davis, the quarterback decides to throw on the run rather than taking the time to set his feet, and he delivers an accurate toss for a score.
Another example of Cousins throwing on the move comes from a 2013 road start against the Giants in Week 17. On this 3rd quarter play, Washington has 11 personnel on the field with a bunch to the left and a single receiver split to the right. They fake a stretch play to the right and Cousins peels away from the fake, rolling out backside. While on the run to the left, he can throw to either Robinson on a short out route or Garçon on the deep drag route; ultimately, he makes the more difficult throw downfield to Garçon. From the end-zone view, notice the sound mechanics exhibited by Cousins on a difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback. It all begins with his turn of the left shoulder, making sure he gets his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. This allows the passer to generate enough power in the throw and make a completion downfield for a first down.
Despite his obvious strengths, our examination of Cousins illuminates two areas of concern. One flaw will likely fade with experience, while the other is an inherent physical limitation of which Cousins needs to be cognizant when trying to make certain throws.
Live Another Down
On two different plays, Cousins tries to force the issue and makes a pass downfield rather than throwing the ball away or taking a sack, either of which would have at least provided another down. Both of these throws are intercepted, putting the Washington defense back on the field in difficult situations.
The first play comes from the second drive of Cousins’s first start in Cleveland. Facing 3rd and 10 in their own territory, Washington has 11 personnel on the field and they use motion to align in a trips formation on the left. The Browns have their nickel defense in the game showing Cover 2, which they then roll to Cover 1 at the snap. Cousins tries to hit a deep post play on the left but the route is covered by both cornerback Sheldon Brown and safety T.J. Ward, who is breaking on it from the deep middle zone. The cornerback tips the ball and Ward secures the interception, returning it to the Washington six-yard line. Cleveland scores the game’s first touchdown on the next play. Given the situation, Cousins should have taken a sack or thrown the ball away rather than forcing a throw and putting his defense in a bad position.
Another example comes from the Atlanta game. Here the Washington offense is backed up on their own goal line, leading by three with 8:27 left in the 3rd quarter. With 12 personnel on the field, they run a play-action pass. Cousins waits in the pocket and attempts a throw late down the middle against the coverage, but strong-safety William Moore cuts under the route to intercept the ball and returns it to the Washington two-yard line. Atlanta scored on the next play to take the lead for good.
Average Arm – Floated Throws
Finally, while Cousins can throw the ball deep with touch and accuracy, his arm is not strong enough for him to rely on when making intermediate throws over the middle into tight windows. The previous play is one such example, and Cousins threw a second interception in Atlanta that further illustrates this point. In the fourth quarter of that contest, Cousins and Washington take over possession on their own 18, trailing by four with 5:00 left in the game. On first down, Washington has Garçon and Santana Moss in a tight slot to the left and they send Moss on a deep route while Garçon breaks inside on a deep in cut. Garçon is open but the throw hangs in the air allowing Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant time to close in on the ball and make the pickoff.
With Robert Griffin III out for an extended period of time, Washington will need to rely on Cousins to make plays in the passing game. If Jay Gruden and the coaching staff work to his strengths in the play-action game and down the field and Cousins refrains from forcing throws to help his defense out when necessary, Washington may be able to stay in the NFC East race even with Griffin on the shelf.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.