Back­ing Cousins: Min­nesota’s quar­ter­back is jus­ti­fy­ing his big con­tract and earn­ing be­liev­ers in the locker room.

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mike Jones

MIN­NE­AP­O­LIS – Kirk Cousins wanted to hit Adam Thie­len on a quick in-break­ing route, and upon see­ing his wide re­ceiver make his move, the Min­nesota quar­ter­back cocked his arm to throw and started bring­ing the ball for­ward. But no sooner than he had, he lo­cated the corner­back and re­al­ized the Pack­ers de­fender hadn’t played the route as he ex­pected.

If he threw the ball, Cousins was ei­ther go­ing to lead Thie­len into a sit­u­a­tion where the re­ceiver would have got­ten lev­eled, or even worse, his pass would have been in­ter­cepted. So he re­hol­stered, as he likes to say. Cousins pulled the ball back, re­set, piv­oted and hit tight end Kyle Ru­dolph for an 11-yard gain and a first down.

Dis­as­ter averted. Chains moved. Hope pre­served.

The play, one of the many key se­quences in Min­nesota’s 24-17 win over NFC North ri­val Green Bay on Nov. 25, was ex­actly the dis­play of poise and ex­e­cu­tion the Vik­ings have needed from their quar­ter­back. It was the kind of play Cousins de­liv­ered far too in­fre­quently in an ugly loss to Chicago one week ear­lier. But that con­nec­tion, and many oth­ers like it, reflected one of the points of em­pha­sis offen­sive co­or­di­na­tor John DeFilippo drilled into his quar­ter­back through­out the prac­tice week.

“When you hold the foot­ball in your hands,” Cousins said, re­lay­ing a mes­sage from the week, “you hold the liveli­hoods of a lot of peo­ple in that build­ing and their fam­i­lies. And as one coach told me many times, ball se­cu­rity is job se­cu­rity. Yours and mine.”

Mes­sage re­ceived. Cousins re­bounded from the Chicago de­ba­cle and de­liv­ered the type of per­for­mance the Vik­ings sought when they gave him a three-year, fully guar­an­teed, $84 mil­lion con­tract in the spring. He com­pleted 29 of 38 pass at­tempts for 342 yards and three touch­downs. Most im­por­tant, Cousins didn’t turn the ball over. The Vik­ings im­proved to 64-1 and re­main in con­tention for an NFC wild-card berth.

With his per­for­mance, Cousins qui­eted some of the crit­ics who spent the week ques­tion­ing his abil­i­ties and posit­ing that the Vik­ings had erred in giv­ing him such a rich con­tract.

But Cousins also de­liv­ered the kind of per­for­mance his team­mates and coaches fully ex­pected of him.

“You know how the me­dia is,” wide re­ceiver Ste­fon Diggs said af­ter the game. “When we’re play­ing great, they build you up. If things hap­pen, they’re go­ing to tear you down, but we have 100 per­cent in the guy. He’s proven why he’s as good as we say he is. We’re be­hind him all the way.”

Diggs, who had eight catches for 77 yards and a touch­down, didn’t stand alone in his as­sess­ment and dec­la­ra­tion of sup­port. Fel­low wide­outs Thie­len and Aldrick Robin­son, left guard Tom Comp­ton, tight end Kyle Ru­dolph and coach Mike Zim­mer all echoed Diggs.

Cousins’ stel­lar play didn’t sur­prise them be­cause they see how hard he works be­hind the scenes.

No stranger to crit­i­cisms be­cause of his time in Wash­ing­ton, in which ev­ery throw, mis­cue and con­tract de­ci­sion drew in­tense scru­tiny, Cousins didn’t flinch as the same talk­ing heads and fans who sud­denly ex­pressed reser­va­tions about his ca­pa­bil­i­ties and worth de­spite hav­ing her­alded him in the spring as the miss­ing link.

He has trained him­self not to lis­ten to the crit­ics. He has also trained him­self to in­tensely self-scout and to re­main con­sis­tent in his ap­proach.

So Cousins re­turned to work af­ter the loss to the Bears car­ry­ing him­self with the same pur­pose and fo­cus as he al­ways does.

“He takes ev­ery game pretty per­son­ally and pretty se­ri­ous . ... He’s the same guy ev­ery day,” said Comp­ton, Cousins’ team­mate and friend since their rookie sea­son in Wash­ing­ton in 2012. “He doesn’t re­ally — if he is frus­trated — he doesn’t re­ally take it out on any­body.

“He’s just in­tense and wants to win so bad, so ev­ery lit­tle thing mat­ters.”

As Robin­son, an­other player drafted by Wash­ing­ton in 2012 and now re­united with Cousins in Min­nesota, ex­plained, “When he wants some­thing a cer­tain way, he wants it that way. That in­ten­sity to get things right comes out. He’s very specific about how he wants things and how he wants it to work.”

He of­ten gets an ex­tra re­ceiver or two to join him for post­prac­tice drills as he tries to im­prove his tim­ing or ac­cu­racy on pre­vi­ously chal­leng­ing throws. Or he has con­ver­sa­tions with team­mates and coaches about break­downs as well as ad­di­tional film study ses­sions.

All of the ex­tra work gives the Vik­ings confidence that Cousins will get them where they need to be. Though the team might not catch Chicago (8-3) for the di­vi­sion ti­tle, con­tend­ing for a Su­per Bowl re­mains pos­si­ble.

“He (re­bounds) be­cause he pre­pares for the worst-case sce­nar­ios and he knows that not ev­ery­thing turns out per­fectly,

so he also plays foot­ball,” Diggs said. “He’s not out there robot­ing. He knows guys are try­ing to get open on the out­side for him and do their job, so he plays foot­ball. He’s just a baller.”

A com­mon dis­cus­sion in the Vik­ings quar­ter­back room in­volves the im­por­tance of re­act­ing to the un­ex­pected.

“What are you go­ing to do if (the called play) is not there? What’s your exit strat­egy?” Cousins ex­plained. “Is it to run, is it to progress? Is it to find an out­let? So, many times our plays are de­signed for cer­tain cov­er­ages and we spend time about if we don’t get that cov­er­age, then what are you go­ing to do? It takes time and you build up that in­ven­tory of ex­pe­ri­ences and you start to learn where all the bones are buried in those plays, as coach (Kevin) Ste­fan­ski likes to say, and then you’re able to not to get fooled as eas­ily and be ready for the tough sce­nar­ios that get thrown at you. Just about any­body can han­dle the easy looks, but you’ve got to be great when it’s a tough look.”

Cousins and the Vik­ings firmly be­lieve he’s do­ing just as he said: stock­pil­ing ex­pe­ri­ences so he can draw upon them, avoid re­peats of dis­as­ter plays and games, and de­liver pos­i­tive out­comes. Do­ing so is a must. Be­cause with matchups against for­mi­da­ble foes in New Eng­land, Seat­tle and Chicago ahead, the Vik­ings need Cousins to re­main cool un­der pres­sure and ball out like he did against Green Bay on a con­sis­tent ba­sis.

HAR­RI­SON BAR­DEN/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Vik­ings’ Kirk Cousins threw for three TDs and had no in­ter­cep­tions against the Pack­ers.

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