Mistakes Were Made: Kirk Cousins’ Start for Washington

The news of the success of Carson Wentz (and company) for the Philadelphia Eagles, and the play of Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, has largely eclipsed the troubles of NFC East rival Kirk Cousins in Washington, but Joseph Ferraiola takes a look to see how the quarterback can improve on his start.

When I reviewed the play of Kirk Cousins in July, I was impressed with how Washington used its backup-turned starter. Jay Gruden and his offensive staff utilized Cousins almost perfectly, especially down the stretch. The offense was designed to control the clock and work its way downfield with short to intermediate passes. Washington was tied for fourth in time of possession in 2015, controlling the ball for an average of 31:29 per contest. Their upgraded rushing attack led to a successful play action passing game that earned Cousins an NFL leading 69.8 completion percentage when throwing off run action.

2016 hasn’t been as kind to Cousins. Cousins struggled through Washington’s first two games, missing open receivers and throwing costly interceptions. Thus far, Washington has not played like it did a season ago. The team is 18th in time of possession, only having the ball for 29:05 minutes per game. Washington is also running the ball less through its first three games, and after three weeks the team is 29th in the NFL in rushing attempts at 19.7 per game. That’s a big drop-off from their 26.3 rushing attempts per game in 2015. This may be a result of them trailing early in their three games so far, however, without a rushing attack Cousins is being forced to throw his way to victories.


Cousins’ main issue is staring down receivers, which results in interceptions and deflected passes. On these two throws in the 4th quarter, Cousins makes fatal mistakes that play a role in Washington’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

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With 10:43 remaining and up three points, Washington has a chance to take a two possession lead with a touchdown on 3rd and 6 from the 6-yard line. At the very least a failed third down conversion could lead to a field goal attempt to go up six.

Washington is in 11 personnel with an empty set. To the left you have running back Chris Thompson (#25) to the bottom of the screen with wide receiver Jamison Crowder (#80) lined up off the line of scrimmage, and Pierre Garcon (#88) as the most inside receiver. On the right is DeSean Jackson (#11) to the top of the screen, and tight end Jordan Reed (#86) to the inside. The Dallas defense has two safeties playing the goal line with its corners to the left positioning themselves towards the quarterback, usually meaning they’re playing zone. On the right side cornerback Morris Claiborne (#24) is on the line of scrimmage across from Jackson.

When the ball is snapped the Cowboys’ front four all rush while the two linebackers Anthony Hitchens (#59) and Sean Lee (#50) sit where they are and play zone. Claiborne, who was pressing the line, performs a zone turn in coverage and has good positioning on Jackson. To Claiborne’s left, Lee has Reed in check. This affords Barry Church (#42) the opportunity to read Cousins’ eyes and make a play.


Once Cousins receives the snap he looks Garcon’s way throughout his entire route and never attempts to look off the safety, Church. Garcon runs vertically into the end zone to get behind the Cowboys’ safeties before running an in route. When he breaks in, Cousins throws the pass, but Church is reading Cousins the entire way and easily steps in front of the pass for an interception.

Cousins needed to move Church with his eyes and give him a reason to play another portion of the field. This mistake was costly as Washington left points on the board at a critical time of the game.

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Later in the 4th quarter, after Dak Prescott led the Dallas offense to a touchdown to take a 27-23 lead, Cousins and the Washington offense faced a 4th and 1 with two minutes remaining on their own 44.

The Washington offense is in 11 personnel with a back to Cousins’ left in the gun. They have a trips formation to the right side. The Cowboys are playing Cover 1 with their corners playing press-man coverage pre-snap. Justin Durant (#56) is the underneath “hole” defender on the play, and is responsible for covering the inside zone on short and intermediate routes.

At the snap Washington sends Jackson towards the outside to “pick” Claiborne covering Garcon on the slant. This creates space and allows Garcon to get open. Normally this would result in a 1st down for Washington, but Cousins once again stares down his receiver and fails to move a key defender. In this case he fails to move the “hole” defender, Durant whose responsibility is to help on the slant route. Durant reads Cousins and breaks up the pass resulting in a turnover on downs.

Because the play is designed to go to Garcon, Cousins cannot stare down his receiver there and allow the LB to make an easy read. He has to force Durant to move away from the slant route by looking to the other side of the field and trust Garcon will be there when he looks back to him. Much like Tom Brady did against the Kansas City Chiefs in their divisional playoff win a season ago.

It’s clear why Cousins’ teammates are frustrated with their QB’s play through the first three games. His inability to look off defenders is causing turnovers during critical plays in the game. If Washington wants to begin winning games consistently and pull themselves out of an early 1-2 start, they’re going to need better QB play from Cousins.

Check out more of Joseph‘s work here, including a look at Dak Prescott’s first start. the offense Doug Pederson will run with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Stanford Cardinal‘s unbalanced run schemes.

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All video courtesy of NFL GamePass. 

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