Kirk Cousins: Positives and negatives from his performance against the Falcons

Kirk Cousins. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post) Kirk Cousins. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Much has been made about the situation quarterback Kirk Cousins finds himself in. He’s been thrust into the spotlight after Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan opted to shut down Robert Griffin III for the final three games of the season and showcase Cousins. Publicly, Cousins has handled the situation as well as anyone could have. He’s said all the right things to the media and came across as genuine while doing so. But all of those things go out the window the moment he steps on the football field. At that point, he has to go out and play to the best of his abilities. Personally, I wasn’t surprised that he was able to run the offense better than Griffin had for most of the season. As I pointed out last week, Cousins is further ahead in his development than Griffin, so he should be able to run the offense better.

Positives

His pocket awareness was much better than Washington had seen with Griffin. I think the offensive line benefited from knowing that Cousins would stay in the pocket and progress through reads, instead of scrambling around. While a mobile quarterback like Griffin can use his legs to avoid the rush, he can be harder to block for if he breaks the pocket early. Knowing where Cousins would be, for the most part, allowed offensive tackles to run edge rushers past him without having to worry about their quarterback trying to scramble that way. Cousins used much more subtle movements like side-steps and “climbing the ladder” to avoid pressure. That’s not to say he was without mistakes. Cousins attempted to avoid a rush by backing away to his left, when he could have stepped up in the pocket. He still got away a solid throw that tight end Logan Paulsen couldn’t quite pull in at the back of the end zone, but Cousins could have made it a much easier throw for himself. But overall, I liked Cousins’s pocket mobility.

One of the biggest and most notable differences between Cousins and Griffin is their footwork. Griffin, coming off his second anterior cruciate ligament surgery, has struggled all year to get his feet in sync with what he was trying to do. Cousins demonstrated early on that he had his footwork in rhythm with his progressions. He was consistently able to transition from his first to second to third reads while getting his feet set each time. Small things like this make a big difference for quarterbacks. Cousins could transition from one side of the field to the other and be able to pull the trigger the moment he saw an open receiver because he had his feet set underneath him. Griffin was relying on his shoulder and pure arm strength to throw the ball because of his footwork problems, which made balls sail on him and lowered his accuracy.

Cousins showed a few examples of more advanced-level quarterback play. On Aldrick Robinson’s deep pass, Cousins kept his helmet looking straight down the middle of the field to not tip off his intentions. That allowed Robinson to run straight past the deep safety and made for an easy completion for a big gain. Cousins did a great job selling the fake on Pierre Garcon’s touchdown catch. Washington had Garcon running a double move, but it was Cousins that made the play a success. He locked on to Garcon and executed a good pump fake to get the corner to bite on a shorter route. Garcon then sprinted past and caught an accurate deep ball from Cousins. Things like looking off safeties and baiting corners on double moves aren’t easy for young quarterbacks to do. It generally takes a while for a quarterback to be able to do this regularly, but Cousins had the benefit of playing in pro-style systems in college.

I liked Cousins’s accuracy over the course of this game. He threw into some very tight windows over a variety of distances. His touchdown to Garcon was perfectly placed to beat both the chasing corner and the deep safety rushing across from the middle of the field. The touchdown to Fred Davis was similarly on point, where only Davis could make a play on the ball. I was impressed with Cousins’s ball placement on shorter routes. On one slant to Garcon, he placed the ball on the back shoulder to keep it away from the defender. Later on, he threw another slant out in front of Garcon that allowed him to catch the ball comfortably without breaking stride and pick up extra yards after the catch.

Decision making was largely a positive for Cousins. For the most part, he was quick through his progressions and decisive when he saw an open receiver. He didn’t hesitate to take the deep shot when he had it, such as the big completion to Robinson or the touchdown to Davis. But he was also willing to take what the defense gave him; checking the ball down to Alfred Morris under pressure on one play, taking a quick out to Nick Williams to convert a third down on another. He worked within the offense and rarely tried to force things.

Negatives

Cousins threw behind his receiver on both of his interceptions. He wasn’t wrong with where he wanted to go with the ball though. On his first interception, he appeared to stay on his first read for a split second too long, which made him late to come back across the field and find Robinson. Robinson was open coming out of his break, but the ball was thrown behind him and easily intercepted. Garcon was also open on a deep in-breaking route, but Cousins threw behind him and allowed the corner to undercut the route and make a good play on the ball. His accuracy didn’t appear to be much of an issue throughout the rest of the game, as I mentioned earlier. So I’m leaning towards believing the interceptions were more of a result of Cousins not knowing exactly how each receiver likes to run their routes, having not had many reps with the first-team offense.

I don’t like that Cousins has a tendency to pat the ball before he throws it. It’s a natural thing for a lot of quarterbacks, and Cousins doesn’t do it on every play, but it’s still a bad habit. We saw Matt Flynn against the Redskins earlier this year throw late for an interception because of this tendency. But Flynn brings the ball down to pat it with his non-throwing hand, whereas Cousins keeps his non-throwing hand on or near the ball. This means patting the ball doesn’t slow down Cousins’s delivery as much as it does for someone like Flynn.

Ball security has got to be a priority for every player, but especially the one who touches the ball on every snap. Cousins cannot allow fumbles like the one he had yesterday. He sensed the rush was coming from the edge and made the right move to step up in the pocket. But he also took the ball back and began his throwing motion. That left the ball vulnerable to being knocked loose, which is exactly what happened.

Locking onto and staring down receivers is something Cousins has struggled with in previous opportunities. There weren’t many plays where this occurred yesterday, but there was still the odd one or two that he locked onto early and tipped off the defense of his intentions. It will be interesting to see over the next two games if Cousins can keep himself from falling into old habits like this one.

Overall, I felt this was a promising start for Cousins. He was against a statically poor defense, granted, but he did have a career day in terms of yards and touchdown passes. He has to eliminate the turnovers from his game though. Washington’s defense isn’t good enough to deal with three turnovers from the quarterback alone. Clearly though,  in my eyes, Cousins executed the Redskins’ offense more efficiently than Griffin has for most of the season. He appeared much more comfortable and poised in the pocket and kept calm despite the chaos of the game.

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.

What’s ahead:

●  Mike Shanahan meets with reporters at 3 p.m Monday.

More on the Redskins:

Mike Jones’s five observations from Redskins vs. Falcons

D.C. Sports Bog: All 34 times Fox showed RGIII on the sideline | More

Hamilton: Jordan Reed is the player who should be shut down

Jenkins: Cousins can’t heal all | Takeaway: Something to smile about

Players back decision to go for two | Griffin tries to help from sidelines

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Mike Jones · December 16, 2013