Minnesota Vikings  

 

Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs shine as Vikings dominate Eagles

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Before he had seen the Vikings' offensive game plan for the Eagles, Stefon Diggs, like many of his teammates, thought he had a good idea of what to expect.

"I assumed we were going to continue doing what we've been doing," he said, referring to the offense's commitment to the running game. "But with certain plays that were coming up during the week in practice, I sensed something different. I was like, 'Alright, we might be throwing the ball a little bit.' "

Turns out "a little bit" was quite the understatement. In a performance that likely stunned the Eagles as much as it pleased the 66,837 in U.S. Bank Stadium, Kirk Cousins matched his career-high with four touchdown passes, including three in the first half, and Diggs set a personal best with three scoring receptions, including two from beyond midfield, as the Vikings beat Philadelphia 38-20 to improve to 4-2.

Whether the outing proves to be a harbinger of greater balance to come remains to be seen, but the ability to hurt a quality opponent through the air at least quieted talk about whether the Vikings made a mistake in signing Cousins to a fully guaranteed $84 million contract last year in free agency.

The signal-caller has come under increasing scrutiny this season -- including from me -- after his late-game interception on first-and-goal from the 8 in Green Bay stymied a shot at victory. But over the last two weeks, Cousins has been at his best, completing 81.5 percent of his passes and throwing for multiple scores for the first time this year in a win over the Giants, then torching the Eagles' banged-up secondary for a season-high 333 yards and 138.4 rating.

This marked only the second time since arriving in Minnesota that he has thrown for at least 300 yards in consecutive games, but more important than the numbers is how he has looked in recording them: aggressive, confident and sure. He is throwing into tight windows, something he has not done consistently as a Viking. Whether that's attributable to coach Mike Zimmer recently telling him to turn it loose and be assertive only Cousins knows, but Sunday was important because it marked Minnesota's first 2019 win over a team with a winning record at the time of the game (the Vikings were 0-2) and gave the staff and teammates a reason to trust in him against quality opponents.

"If we want to get to where we want to go, everyone knows it's going to take the passing game," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "Everyone knows how committed to the run we are, but we're not just going to be able to run the football all day every day. When you come out and make big plays in the passing game, then you run for more than 100 yards as a team, you create that balance that makes us tough to defend. So this was huge."

If nothing else, the performance muffled narratives about disenchantment among the wideouts. It was just a couple weeks ago that wideout Adam Thielen, in stating the obvious, said the offense needed more balance after he had just two catches for 6 yards in a 16-6 loss to Chicago, and Diggs skipped a practice the following week because of what was believed to be frustration with the state of the offense.

There was speculation that Diggs wanted to be traded, although he would neither confirm or deny the talk, saying only that "there's truth to all rumors."

I spoke to him before he addressed the media Sunday and asked about his level of frustration in previous weeks.

"It's been a process because you've got to understand that I'm human," Diggs said. "People forget that you're human and they want you to be a machine and play into the narrative as far as what they've built. ... I never even stated the stuff that they said; it was everybody else making assumptions because I'm a receiver. All I can do is control what I can control, and the people who know me personally and know me on that level -- they know that I'm not that guy (who puts himself before the team). They know I work my ass off. I put a lot of time into my craft. If I was a guy who didn't care about what I did, I would just shut up and be like, 'OK, whatever the situation is, it is.' But I put a lot of time into it. I always look at it as, when the opportunities come, be ready. This was just a situation where the opportunities came and I was ready."

Cousins opened the game with a 4-yard completion to Diggs, then after completing the 13-play, 75-yard drive with a 6-yard strike to Thielen, found Diggs from 62 yards out on a deep post early in the second quarter. He followed that with a 51-yard scoring toss on their next possession. Diggs added an 11-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter and finished with seven catches for 176 yards, the second-highest total of his career by 6 yards.

"The difference today?" Diggs said afterward. "We just played with the same confidence we had last week. I feel like some people were doubting [Cousins] on the other side, and that's when he plays his best, when he has a lot to prove."

Eagles linebacker Zach Brown, who was a teammate of Cousins' in Washington in 2017, said during the week that the quarterback was "probably the weakest part" of their offense. The broadcast crew also noted that safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Eagles wanted to take the ball out of Dalvin Cook's hands and put it in Cousins', presumably because that was a safer road to victory.

Cousins said he was unaware of Brown's comments, but it was clear there was an edge to him during the game. After his first score to Diggs, he stalked the sideline with a baseball cap on his head and a drink in his right hand. Suddenly he slammed the towel in his left hand to the turf without ever looked up or making eye contact with anyone. That intensity could be seen on the sideline throughout the game, as well as a variation of it during his postgame press conference.

He has faced a lot of doubters, many of whom believe he was the beneficiary of good timing when he landed his free-agent deal. At some point you can tune out the noise for only so long, though Cousins continues to maintain he is oblivious to it.

"I really do stay ignorant (to the criticism), not read anything, and that's for my best interest," he said. "Zach was a teammate in Washington. He's one of the better linebackers I've played with or against; have a lot of respect for him. If you're trying to write a story about how it was a motivator this week, it wasn't because I didn't know about it."

Ignorance might be bliss for Cousins, but opponents are sure to notice the difference in his play the last two weeks. Because if he keeps it up, the Vikings could well position themselves for a significant return on their investment. But will he? He has had hot stretches in the past, particularly in Washington, but the challenge is doing it over the course of a season. If nothing else, Sunday was a first step in answering questions about the passing game. Or was it?

"If it was ever in question, this would be the answer," Diggs said. "But I don't think it was ever in question. It was just how things came up. Me, I always try to keep it business first, take my feelings and emotions out of it. How things shake out, they will shake out."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at @JimTrotter_NFL.

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