There are some games during the course of a NFL season that pit one team’s strength against another team’s strength. That will be the case Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings meet the Washington Redskins.
The Vikings enter play this week as the league’s third-ranked defense, while Washington comes into play as the fourth-ranked offense. In the center of the battle of strength vs. strength is Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.
A player who emerged last season when head coach Jay Gruden benched Robert Griffen III, Cousins was franchised in the offseason and is playing on a one-year “prove it” contract.
Cousins credits the success of the Washington offense to the execution of fundamentals that have prevented the Redskins offense from shooting itself in the foot and sustaining drives.
“I think it’s just a combination of things that make an offense go well,” Cousins said. “Guys are executing their plays – 11 guys working together, trying to avoid penalties, good game plan, good play calls, running the football well enough to stay in productive, manageable third downs. It’s a combination of a lot of factors that have contributed.”
Cousins has had an arsenal of passing-game weapons at his disposal all season, including wide receivers Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder and tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. But he is fully aware from film study that the Vikings have the third-ranked pass defense for a reason.
Just as Washington’s offense isn’t based solely around one or two key players – they spread the ball around to several of their key contributors – he’s mindful that the Vikings defense is stocked with talented players at all three levels capable of making the plays that can turn a game around.
“All the reasons that a make a defense successful any season is true of this unit,” Cousins said. “They’re well-coached, have a good scheme, athletically talented players, experienced players with a core group of guys that have been together several seasons. I think that all combines to make for a very talented unit that has been productive week in, week out. It’s one of the top, if not the top, defense in the league.”
Cousins didn’t want to get into specifics about which Vikings defender will be a priority to keep track of – he was leery of mentioning names and leaving someone off the list – but he was asked specifically about safety Harrison Smith, who has been earning a ton of midseason All-Pro notices.
Cousins has more than cursory awareness of Smith’s talent and his ability to make plays in the deep secondary, at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield on blitzes.
The Redskins are going to make sure to have Smith accounted for on every play because they’re acutely aware of his playmaking abilities.
“He’s a tremendous safety – a great player,” Cousins said. “He’s a very smart player who is athletic and talented. He’s been playing for a while in this league and knows the league very well. It will be a good challenge for us to go against a player of his caliber.”
In the end, Sunday’s game may well come down to the two head coaches – Gruden and Mike Zimmer. Both were coordinators at the same time in Cincinnati – Zimmer coaching the Bengals defense and Gruden overseeing the offense.
They both got head coaching jobs at the same time and came to their new cities with a promise to continue what had made them successful coordinators with the Bengals – Zimmer would bring an aggressive defense and Gruden would bring a big-play offense that can control the clock and make the dynamic splash plays that flip the field position.
Gruden hasn’t been shy about telling his players that the Vikings defense is one to be concerned with because they can take over games.
“He has only the highest of praise (for Zimmer),” Cousins said. “Coach Gruden has always spoke well of Coach Zimmer. He’s always respected him and his scheme and his approach to defense. We know we’ll have our hands full with him as the opposing coach and with the players he’s coaching and the way they’re executing that scheme.”
It’s rare when you can get one of the league’s top-rated offenses to square off with one of the top-rated defenses, but Cousins knows that there will be a lot of pressure on him to make the plays that many other talented quarterbacks haven’t been able to and, when all said and done Sunday afternoon, the battle of one head coach scheming against his former colleague and now counterpart will be the key to who wins and who loses Sunday.