The Washington Commanders will put their win streak to the test against the Minnesota Vikings at home in Week 9. Here are three keys to the game, presented by KIA.
How can Washington take advantage of Kirk Cousins' limitations?
Logan: This question is loaded. All quarterbacks are limited, but given the right play calling, scheme and personnel, a quarterback, even an average one, can be elevated. Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback but one that needs to be elevated.
At the highest level, Minnesota's head coach, Kevin O'Connell has done this by limiting the number of difficult decisions Cousins has to make during a game. There are several ways Minnesota tries to do this, but the most obvious tool in O'Connell's toolbox is the play-action on first and second down.
Coaches like the play-action pass game for the space it opens in the defense, and rightfully so. However, play-action also puts the defensive line in conflict. By faking a run play, the offense is encouraging them to take on blocks as opposed to avoiding them.
Minnesota had one of the worst passes protecting offensive lines in the NFL last season. That is not the case this season. Obviously, players like Christian Darrisaw have matured and are playing at a high level, but O'Connell's emphasis on play-action has put them in positions to be successful more consistently.
For Cousins, this is a huge help. No quarterback does well with pressure, but Cousins has historically struggled with it. It makes sense that O'Connell would use any tool at his disposal to elevate the offensive line and by extension, his signal-caller.
The second element of play-action passes is the concept. They often utilize fewer receivers, leaving extra players to pass protect. This might sound a like a negative, but the two- or three-man route concepts, in addition to the larger throwing windows, create defenses that are clear to see and dissect.
One of Cousins' strengths is his ability to use the defense's presnap alignment to help him know where to go with the football. For example, if the defense is playing a middle field closed structure (a safety standing in the middle of the field), that helps him know that he should be working the side of the offense that has the receiver who can beat cover 3.
This might sound like a negative, but this is a huge advantage against modern NFL defenses and is even more pronounced on play-action passes. Now, rather than reading a concept, he only needs to see if his receiver wins on the route.
O'Connell increases this advantage by using a technique he learned from Sean McVay. With Jared Goff at the helm of Los Angeles' offense, McVay exploited being able to speak in the quarterback's headset until 15 seconds before the snap by hurrying the offense to the line of scrimmage and calling a fake cadence. The defense would break their presnap disguise, allowing McVay to call a play knowing the coverage he needed to beat.
O'Connell has been doing the same thing with Cousins using their play-action game as the conduit, compounding the easy decision making of a play-action pass attack even further.
So, how does Washington negate the advantages gained by these schematic choices? The answer is simple; the Commanders need to disguise their coverages structures on first and second downs, making it harder for Cousins or O'Connell to accurately identify their coverage. This will slow down Cousins' processing time and possibly allow Washington's defensive front to create pressure.
The Commanders also need to win their one-on-one matchups in the run game. While an effective run game is not a necessary to have an effective play-action pass, getting a team in second-and-10 decreases the likelihood that they will call a play-action pass on second down.
If Washington can execute in these areas, they will force Cousins to win from the pocket. While I think Kirk is capable, he struggled when he operated more from the pocket against Philadelphia. Hopefully, Washington can achieve a similar result.
Zach: Logan broke down how to keep Cousins in the pocket, I'll discuss what needs to be done after that. I'll keep it simple: Washington needs to take advantage of Cousins' occasional struggles to feel pressure.
That means the Commanders will need to rely on their defensive line to win their matchups, which is not always easy against the Vikings' offensive line. They are around the middle of the pack in terms of pass-block win-rate (15th), but Darrisaw has one of the best PFF pass-block grades for a tackle (85.0), and the group has given up the fifth-fewest sacks in the league (14). They also have the ninth-lowest adjusted sack rate (6.0%).
If Washington can get past that, it should manage to get to Cousins easily enough. Cousins has one of the slowest release times in the league (2.83 seconds). The Eagles, who have one of the best pass-rushing fronts in the league, held Cousins to his lowest QBR (24.8) of the year.
A healthy dose of rushers like Montez Sweat, who has 16 quarterback hits, should make life difficult for Cousins.
How can Washington's offense get success on early downs?
Logan: NFL defenses have started to change with the proliferation of the passing attacks. Minnesota is no different; traditionally, defenses have prioritized stopping the run by putting more players near the line of scrimmage.
For example, if the offense has seven blockers, the defense will place eight players at or near the line of scrimmage, one for every blocker and one for the back. This allows every defensive player to have one gap and force the ball back to the unblocked player.
Now, if the offense has seven blockers, defenses play with seven defenders, leaving no free tackler for the running back. This stresses every member of the front. Instead of forcing the run to an unblocked player, the defensive players must defeat their blocks and make the tackle.
To allocate more manpower to the pass game, Minnesota counts on players up front to execute in these situations. The Chargers under Brandon Staley used this philosophy last year and gave up over five yards a carry to opposing teams. This has not been the case with Minnesota. Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips have been awesome to watch, playing with power and recognition to consistently disrupt opponents' rushing attacks. Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter also do an excellent job of constructing rushing lanes from their spots on the edge.
It's no secret; Washington is going to run the football. They feel they need to, despite Minnesota having a porous passing defense. They showed last week that they are committed to the run-first approach despite game flow.
So, how does Washington stay efficient running the football? New Orleans had some success, but for most of the season, finding yards on the ground against Minnesota has been a challenge.
Tomlinson being out will be a huge help. Tomlinson, to me, is one of the best run defenders in the NFL. He is quick, powerful and plays with great instincts. While his backup, Khyiris Tonga, is also a good run defender, he is a step down.
While Washington should be able to exploit Tomlinson's absence, they can also find schematic advantages. Minnesota plays an extra defensive lineman against sets with multiple tight ends or a fullback. This personnel move helps eliminate double teams and forces Minnesota's opponents into one-on-one matchups, which usually favor Minnesota.
Minnesota's cinco package becomes less effective with Tomlinson's injury. However, I believe the most effective way to run the ball against Minnesota, even on early downs, is with lighter personnel. Washington should keep Minnesota's large defensive lineman off the field and allow the offensive line to double team on the inside. This, coupled with Tomlinson's injury, should allow Washington to stay ahead of the sticks when they decide to run the ball on early downs.
Zach: I'm a big fan of running the ball, so I agree with Logan that sticking to that on first and second down should help Washington gain some rhythm. But let us not forget that despite having Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson, both of whom are playing well, the Vikings' secondary is 29th in passing yards allowed. So, I'm campaigning for Washington to give Taylor Heinicke some easier, short-to-intermediate throws.
Obviously, Heinicke had his issues for about half the game against the Colts, but what I liked on the final two drives was that the game plan did not ask Heinicke to chuck the ball downfield. Instead, the coaching staff gave him plays like the dig route that Cam Sims ran in the fourth quarter. That maintained Washington's momentum, and it got more players besides Terry McLaurin involved.
Of course, Smith and Peterson are going to have their moments, but sprinkling in a few manageable throws in a run-heavy scheme, even to pass-catchers like Antonio Gibson, should keep the Vikings off balance.
Who is one player to watch on Sunday?
Logan: Justin Jefferson Is special and has one of the most complete skill sets at the position. He has an ability to run routes inside and outside, becoming a weapon from all over the formation, allowing O'Connell to consistently find favorable matchups. His skill set within the route is also spectacular. He shows a high understanding of leverages, how to use acceleration and deceleration in his route stem as well as excellent footwork and nice natural hands.
Jack Del Rio and this defense have their work cut out finding an answer for him. I expect Del Rio to stick close to form and run his traditional cover 3 and cover 6 structures. Zone coverages against a player like Jefferson are smart. They eliminate his ability to take advantage of one individual, allowing the structure of the defense to take away some of what makes Jefferson special. Couple this with the fact that Minnesota doesn't prioritize vertical shots with Jefferson, and the Commanders' base defense should help mitigate his effectiveness.
However, Del Rio does like to play man in specific situations and had some success against Philadelphia, by bringing pressure with man coverage on the back end. In these situations, I expect to see Benjamin St-Juste matched up against the Pro Bowl receiver.
The task is huge, but St-Juste has a history of going toe-to-toe with No. 1 receivers. Jefferson is nuance with to top end athleticism. It is going to be a test for the young corner, but being the best cover corner on the team comes with expectations when heavy hitters come to town. I can't wait to see what St-Juste is about this weekend.