He made a number of mistakes that hurt the rhythm of the offense and killed drives. It started on the opening drive and continued throughout the game.
Early in the game, Washington calls one of its play-action bootleg concepts. Tight end Jordan Reed runs an intermediate out route while wide receiver Ryan Grant sifts back across the offensive line to work into the flat as the check-down option.
As Cousins rolls out on the bootleg, he appears to look down the field to Reed, who breaks his route to the sideline. While there is a defender over the top, he’s playing more than five yards off. Cousins shouldn’t have any problems making a quick throw and finding Reed for the first down. Instead, he hesitates and ends up dumping the ball off to Grant who was already out of bounds.
Unfortunately, that was a sign of things to come for Cousins. There were too many occasions where he missed receivers running open.
On third and 11, the Redskins run a pass combination designed to beat multiple zone coverages. DeSean Jackson runs a corner route on the outside while Reed works out to the flat. The corner-flat route combination is a basic cover-two beater, but Washington adds a twist. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder runs a dig route that gives Cousins an out if the Steelers use cover-three instead of cover-two.
Cousins reads to his left off the snap, appearing to read the deep corner in order to diagnose the coverage. The corner stays outside, which should tell Cousins that the coverage isn’t cover-two and to come off the corner route. At that point, I believe he should have moved on to Crowder running the dig route. Crowder finds a big hole in the zone coverage, but Cousins opts to dump the ball off to Reed, who gets tackled short of the first down.
Cousins had trouble all game with hesitations, missed reads and poor anticipation. In the third quarter, Cousins missed an opportunity to find Reed for a touchdown over the middle when he should have anticipated him coming open.
Washington spreads out the defense here, leaving Cousins on his own in the backfield. Reed lines up in the slot and runs down the seam and across the middle of the field.
It’s impossible to say for sure what exactly Cousins was reading, but he appears to be reading the deep safety as he occupies the middle of the field. At the top of his drop, Cousins has his helmet lined up directly down the middle of the field, suggesting he is still reading the deep safety. If he can see the gap in the middle of the field, he should know he has Reed about to break into it. Reed breaks behind the underneath zone defenders and into a small gap in the zone coverage. It would have been a small throwing window, but that’s what the top quarterbacks in the NFL deal with. Instead, Cousins throws the ball away.
It wasn’t only mental errors for Cousins on Monday night. He had mechanical issues too. He has two tendencies that pop up in his game from time to time and both appeared against the Steelers.
The first tendency Cousins has is falling back on throws where he feels pressure. It’s natural for a quarterback to not fully step into a throw when a defender is about to land a big hit. But Cousins will lean back and fall away from throws when the pressure hasn’t fully arrived and he has no need to.
Reed gets matched up one-on-one with Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on a deep route over the middle. Reed gets a step or two ahead of Shazier and Cousins pulls the trigger. He’s perhaps a fraction late on the throw, but if he can get velocity on the throw, Reed has a good chance of securing the touchdown. However, Cousins feels left guard Shawn Lauvao being driven back into him, causing him to not properly step into the throw and lean back. That causes Cousins to lose a lot of velocity on the throw and allows Shazier the chance to recover and break up the pass.
Cousins’s other tendency is to overstride when stepping into throws. It was particularly evident during the Falcons and Jets games last season, but he cleaned it up down the stretch. However, it crept back into his game against Pittsburgh.
Cousins looks to find Crowder on a pivot route on this play.
The play opens up perfectly for Cousins. The other receivers clear space for Crowder to break back inside, while the protection up front opens a clear lane for Cousins to step into the throw. However, his throw falls short and wide of Crowder.
The overstride stops Cousins from transferring his weight correctly over his front leg. To combat that, Cousins has to lean forward to get velocity on his throw. That forward lean drags the ball down and causes it to fall short of its intended target.
The positive take away is that Cousins had these issues last year and overcame them during that successful run down the stretch. That offers some hope that Cousins will be able to fix these mechanical problems, but it’s certainly disappointing to see them appearing during the opening game of the season.
Perhaps the worst throw of the game was Cousins’s first interception.
Washington runs a beautifully designed four-verticals concept, which should match up well against a cover-three defense that the Steelers had been using most of the game up until this point.
The Steelers do run cover-three, which should work in favor of the Redskins. But as Cousins drops back, he locks onto Jordan Reed running across the middle of the field. The Steelers linebackers do a good job sinking and gaining depth on their drops, while the deep safety reads Cousins locking on to Reed. Reed never actually cleared the linebackers before Cousins pulled the trigger. That allows the linebacker near Reed to continue sinking while keeping his eyes on the ball the whole way into his hands for the interception.
The throw to Reed was never there and Cousins had no pressure on him to force him to throw the ball so early on in the play. If he had been patient, he might have spotted the other receiver running open down the seam. The deep safety may have stayed in the middle of the field and been in a better position to cover the seam had Cousins not been so hasty to throw, but there’s no way to know that for sure. Had Cousins managed to hold the deep safety in the middle of the field and stayed patient, that might have allowed Reed a chance to clear the linebackers and get open.
It was ultimately a poor performance and disappointing way start to the season, especially given that Cousins is hoping to earn himself a long-term contract that pays him like the top quarterbacks in the NFL. While it’s not time to overreact to one poor performance, it’s clear he has to correct his mistakes and improve quickly with two important divisional games back-to-back in the next two weeks.
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