EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins was aggravated.
An otherwise productive Day 2 of mandatory minicamp was soured at the end of practice when the Vikings quarterback threw two interceptions in the red zone. That same period also featured two overthrown balls, a dropped pass and a ball that was tipped at the line by defensive end Danielle Hunter, all of which occurred in that same troublesome area inside the 20-yard line.
“Right now I’m pretty salty walking off the field,” Cousins said Wednesday. “I’m really frustrated. I do not want to walk into the summer with a bad taste in my mouth about practice. Hopefully we can finish really strong tomorrow and be feeling good going into the summer.
“Even one bad decision in practice kind of bothers me all afternoon and I can be a bit of a grouch when I go home. That one bothered me. Adam [Thielen] was frustrated with a couple plays himself. He was sitting in his locker pouting with me, so we were having a little pity party with each other just now before I came out here.”
After finishing 28th in red zone scoring two years ago, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has made situational football in this area a regular part of practices. Last season Minnesota jumped to ninth in red zone scoring, notching a touchdown on nearly 58 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line.
These drills have continued this spring, often featuring third-down situations in the red zone.
On his first pass attempt in the second red zone period, Cousins’ pass intended for Stefon Diggs was picked off by Jayron Kearse. Two plays later, Anthony Barr grabbed a pass Cousins meant to send to Kyle Rudolph.
“The first [interception], I just couldn’t get all the way through the throw, so the ball died on me,” Cousins said. “The second one, [I] was testing it a little bit, trying to see what I can get away with, and I learned pretty quickly that I can’t get away with that throw.
“Some of the beauty of OTAs is you can test stuff, you can experiment, you can try things without the ramifications that you would have during the season. Just got to learn from them and use them and bank those reps so that come the season, you’re making really good decisions in those critical situations.”
Cousins was eventually able to string together completions during the third period after completing TD passes to Diggs and Rudolph earlier in the practice.
A key to that? The reinforcement he received from offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who above adjustments and critiques stressed the importance of a quarterback having short-term memory.
“If you don’t have that, it’s going to be really, really hard to move on to the next play,” DeFilippo said. “In the headset I was just telling him, ‘Next play, next play, next play.’ We’re going to go through rough stretches at some point this season. There’s going to be an interception, there’s going to be a couple three-and-outs in a row. That’s real life football.”
Cousins’ issues in the red zone often were critiqued during his time in Washington. In 2017, the quarterback completed 50 percent of his throws inside the 20, and his three interceptions were tied for the second worst with Dak Prescott and Brett Hundley. When the Redskins moved inside the 10-yard line, Cousins’ completion percentage dipped to 34.6 percent (9-of-25 passing).
When DeFilippo was hired in February, one of the first things the offensive coordinator promised was the Vikings developing a “touchdown-checkdown mentality” in the red zone. The ability to make throws into tight windows or check the ball down is critical for Cousins as he continues to learn the offense and get comfortable in an area where he’s struggled. Part of taking the pressure off Cousins inside the 20-yard line will be the reliance of Minnesota’s run game with Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray, who led the Vikings with seven red zone touchdowns.
As the Vikings wrap up minicamp on Friday and Cousins heads into the offseason, the quarterback aims to put his red zone mistakes in the past and end on a high note. Reflecting on his first two months in the Twin Cities and the ups and downs that have come with learning a new offense, Cousins says the relationship he has established with DeFilippo and the areas of his game he’s honed in on are at the top of his list of early accomplishments.
“I was just pleasantly surprised with the rapport,” Cousins said. “There was a fair amount of carryover from what I’ve done in the past, so that was a good first step, and then whenever I did suggest something, he’s just been a great listener, he’s been a great communicator. I love his passion for the game. I feel like although we’ve never crossed paths in the past, we do have similar backgrounds and a lot of times we’re coming from a similar perspective. I’ve really enjoyed working with him and I can’t wait to build reps and build experiences with him such that we have a bit of a rapport and a dynamic and a reputation around the league. Hopefully we can get there.”
Adjusting to the speed at which DeFilippo has run his practices was a work in progress for not only Cousins but the entire Vikings offense. Rapid-fire deep ball drills where Cousins and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian moved back and forth while launching passes to receivers in rhythm on Wednesday showcased an ability to move up-tempo.
Progress like that earns praise from DeFilippo, who gets to walk away from the spring knowing things that have clicked with his quarterback have translated to team drills.
“I think when you just see him operate fast,” the offensive coordinator said. “He did a few things out there today that unless you knew he did, you would have no idea he did in terms of changing the protection, in terms of using a unique cadence to help us identify the defensive front, the defensive coverage, all those things, the blitz [packages]. Our defense was bringing the heat pretty good today. He did some subtle things that tell you he’s really understanding the little intricacies of what we’re trying to accomplish.”