As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 15, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides three storylines to watch on Sunday.
The Minnesota Vikings hold the sixth seed in the NFC playoff picture heading into Week 15's game against the Los Angeles Chargers, who have already been eliminated from postseason contention. There's a chance Minnesota could still win the NFC North title, but there's also a chance it could fall out of the postseason completely. After a 2-2 start, Kirk Cousins has improved his play to get the Vikings to 9-4. How has he been able to get them to this point?
This past offseason, the Vikings made a commitment to put Cousins in the best position to succeed by hiring Gary Kubiak as an offensive advisor and Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator. This offense emphasizes a strong run game that features Dalvin Cook, bootlegs and play-action, an area where Cousins has thrived in his career. After a slow start to the season, Cousins has been one of the most effective QBs on play-action passes since Week 5, throwing 12 TDs with a 145.8 passer rating (both best in NFL with a min. 25 play-action attempts), according to Pro Football Focus. He has been equally good on bootlegs (or play-action rollouts) with seven of his NFL-leading 13 play-action TDs on rollouts this season (most in the NFL).
Under Kubiak and Stefanski, the quarterback is asked to make fewer calls at the line of scrimmage, which allows the QB to run a fast-paced offense and make quicker decisions. As a result of these changes, Cousins has cut down immensely on turnovers. He has thrown four picks all season, and two of those bounced off his receivers' hands and into the hands of defenders. He is playing with a ton of confidence, evidenced by his production but also in guiding the Vikings to a road win in Dallas on Sunday Night Football and a comeback victory over Denver in which the team trailed by 20 at halftime.
Cousins has fit the bill up to this point, but it's crunch time now. Sunday's game against the Chargers -- and the remaining contests (homes games vs. Green Bay and Chicago) -- will show the Vikings if Cousins really is the right guy to get them over the hump.
The San Francisco 49ers have proven to be one of the NFL's top defenses this season -- maybe even the best -- led by their outstanding defensive line and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Bosa. But, this unit gave up 46 points(!) in last week's win over New Orleans. The Saints showed the rest of the league a blueprint of how to score ... and score ... and score. The 49ers' zone defense was shredded left and right by Drew Brees and his ability to find holes in coverage underneath or between defenders at the second and third levels. The other good news for Atlanta is the Niners will be without Richard Sherman (hamstring) this week. His replacement, Emmanuel Moseley, has struggled at times this season and should be a target for Matt Ryan. The Falcons rank third in pass offense, so they will pose a tough matchup for Robert Saleh's unit, which ranks first in pass defense. The Falcons' 2016 league MVP has the talent and football IQ to throw all over the yard on San Francisco -- even without injured WR Calvin Ridley -- but the question is, will he have time to throw?
The Pittsburgh Steelers boast the league's fifth-best total defense but I'm convinced the D isn't the unit that will determine how far this team will go. That burden is carried by undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who's gone 3-0 as a starter. After watching him in Pittsburgh's victory over Arizona last week, there are some areas in which he shows promise, but there are others that could ultimately be his undoing. One strong point was he made several great throws, including an accurate back-shoulder pass in the second quarter. What's carried him up to this point is his ability to make positive gains with his legs, but he's still not seeing the field well at times, which results in him holding the ball too long or forcing throws into dangerous territory. His opponent this week -- the Bills -- has a defense that's no joke, as the Buffalo D ranks second in scoring (16.3 points per game), so there's a lot weighing on Hodges and Co. There's a chance starting running back James Conner (shoulder) returns to the field on Sunday, which would be a tremendous help, but I would imagine the Bills' game plan is to take away the run game and keep Hodges in the pocket, forcing him to beat them through the air. All eyes will be on the rookie QB in the prime-time game. He must prove that he can read defenses and that he is further along as a passer than we think.